Love it or hate it, tempeh has reached mainstream as a protein replacement for vegetarians and vegans, and it is a stand out because of the fermentation process. Although many of us think of tempeh as a “meat substitute,” it originated as its own, stand-alone, traditional Indonesian dish that provided much-needed protein to residents of the islands.
Most tempeh starts with a soy base, and some are made with beans, wheat and other whole grains. This is where the similarity to tofu ends. After soybeans are hulled, soaked, and partially cooked, vinegar is added to lower the PH and encourage the growth of tempeh mold. A fermentation starter is added and beans are left on a sheet to ferment for 24 to 36 hours. A mat of mycelium will form around the beans. Finally, the tempeh is cut into sheets ready for cooking!
Another big difference between tempeh and other soy products like tofu is the nutritional value. Soy carbohydrates are more digestible in tempeh due to the fermentation process. This process also reduces phytic acid in the soy, allowing the body to better absorb minerals. In Indonesia, tempeh is often made with other bacteria that contribute vitamins like B12. However, in the U.S. our food safety laws prevent anything but a “clean” culture.
Tempeh has a complex flavor that can be described as nutty, meaty, and mushroom-like. It has incredible versatility in dishes (which is why we love to use it!), and can be steamed, marinated, thinly sliced, blackened, or crumbled. The most common way to prepare tempeh is to marinate it in a brine or salty sauce (the sponge-like consistency lends itself to soaking up juice) and throw it on the stovetop to give it a crisp, golden crust. Tempeh Mendoan is a traditional tempeh fried with flour and served with soybean sauce and chiles.
In her previous life, Lettuce’s chef Leslie owned a food truck and swore by the local tempeh that we’re using in your delivery this week! When she was buying for her truck, the company was called The Hearty Vegan and was the first licensed tempeh producer in the state of Texas. Now you can find “Texas tempeh” at local grocery stores produced by the company Orale!