Chances are if you know what tempeh is, you think it’s something vegans and health nuts eat. Well OK they might, but California is not where tempeh originates. Tempeh is a traditional and humble ingredient in Indonesian and Malaysian food.
And like all good things in life, tempeh is fermented. It’s started by a lactic acid bacteria similar to the one present in those sumptuous mould-ripened cheeses. The precise bacteria that ferments the soybeans has been isolated and studied for its biopreservation features. Consider tempeh a food for fermentation nuts, such as lovers of beer and wine.
It is made from soybeans and yet different enough from its coagulated cousin, tofu, to the extent that people who dislike tofu like tempeh. Personally I love both but tofu can be gelatinous and tastes like, well, soybean milk curd. Tempeh, on the other hand, is dense and nutty. It can take more of a beating when cooked but admittedly, tempeh is not as versatile as tofu.
No offense to our good friend tofu (which is also present in Malay food, although not as much as in Chinese), I absolutely love tempeh. I’ll go so far as to say I obsessively crave tempeh when it’s not around. Living in Malaysia, I can get a fix of my favorite fermented soybean cake anytime. As long as I have access to Malay of Indo food, I’ll be able to sink my teeth into one of the dozens of dishes with tempeh at their heart– or even buy it fresh from the market where it’s sold while still warm.
We eat at the same nasi campur hawker stall each day for lunch and without fail they have two tempeh dishes on their buffet.
Tempeh’s main features include dense but soft texture and distinct umami–a sort of mushroomy, earthy savoriness.
Uncooked tempeh has the somewhat unsettling appearance of a blue cheese because of its lactic acid bacterial veins, but the flavor is surprisingly not sour or tart or even that intense. Although I personally don’t believe you can make tempeh taste bad, Malaysians and Indonesians know better than anyone how to make tempeh taste good.
The following tempeh recipe from the Salt n Turmeric blog incorporates another key Malay ingredient, ikan bilis (dried anchovies). I haven’t tried the recipe yet, so if you do please post back your results. There is another recipe that looks great to me.
If you happen to be in Vancouver, The Naam makes a killer Ruben sandwich using tempeh.
Finally, if you’re keen on making your own and have access to the starter culture here’s how to make tempeh. If you make your own, though, I absolutely insist that you post back with your results!