The why and how of eating tempeh

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» The why and how of eating tempeh

Phil Mulligan delves into the culture of Indonesia and its so-called 'peasant food', providing advice on how to make tempeh from scratch as well as how best to cook it with his favourite recipes.

How many people have heard of tempeh? I've never met a meat-eater who has. A few veggies have heard of it, but have rarely tasted, it. And vegans? Well, I for one have eaten tempeh occasionally, but despite the rumours of wondrous nutritional value I never quite felt the taste justified the expense - until I moved to Jakarta. In Indonesia tempeh is both cheap - a fiftieth of the UK price - and colourfully cooked with exotic spices.

TempehLike tofu, tempeh is made from soya beans. But whereas tofu is made from an extract of the ground-up beans, tempeh uses the beans whole, compressed together and fermented to form a block held together by a white fibrous network called mycelia. It is sometimes quite difficult for the human digestive system to cope with whole soya beans, but the fermentation process involved in converting the raw beans into tempeh allows the enzymes in the stomach to maximise the nutritional potential of soya. Soya is a really valuable source of nutrition. Soya beans contain fibre, iron, zinc and nearly 40% protein - an exceptionally high proportion. Soya protein contains all of the essential amino acids, and has a digestibility of about 95%, making it a high quality source. The fat in soya is mostly unsaturated, which is the type that reduces blood cholesterol. Research suggests that soya can help to lower blood cholesterol, and it is recommended to people as a heart healthy choice. Let's hear it then for soya - and the amazing healthy taste of tempeh!

Make it from scratch

Compared with tofu, however, tempeh is still relatively difficult to buy in the UK. For those who do not live near an Asian supermarket or who can't afford to buy tempeh as often as they wish to eat it, the solution is to make it at home. Like making soya yoghurt or sprouting beans, this is not as difficult as it may seem. First, the beans need to be soaked overnight until they swell. When the skins have burst they should to be rubbed off (they will float to the surface of a bowl of water) and discarded. The beans are then split into halves. In Java barefoot villagers tread the beans like grapes; the light touch of a rolling pin is a useful alternative. The beans then need to be boiled for about 20 minutes, drained and left to cool until they are lukewarm. Now here's the catch: you need to get hold of some powdered Rhizopus oligosporus culture, which some health food shops sell or you may be able to buy direct from food manufacturers. The culture should be sprinkled on to the beans and mixed in well. If you were making tempeh in Indonesia you would wrap the beans in banana leaves, but as these are probably harder to get hold of in Europe than Rhizopus oligosporus, plastic bags or foil trays can be used.

These need to be perforated with small holes every centimetre or so to ensure a good air supply for the mould spores.Whatever container you use for the beans it should not be more than two centimetres deep. The beans are now ready to be incubated at a temperature between 25°and 30°C for 24-48 hours.

Maintaining the right temperature and ensuring a good air supply are essential as Rhizopus oligosporus is a delicate culture. This can ideally be done in an airing cupboard, but because the culture is so delicate, unlike home-made yoghurt, it is difficult to transfer the culture from one batch of tempeh to another.

Tempeh in the Indonesian diet

Frying tempeh

The ease of growing soya beans in Indonesia and the clement weather for fermentation have meant that tempeh has evolved as a major part of the local diet, particularly in Java, the most populous island of the archipelago. Like wheat in Europe, tempeh in Indonesia is sold cheaply, cooked tastily and found everywhere - everywhere, that is. apart from certain areas of Jakarta. While leaf-dad blocks of tempeh are abundant in the traditional bazaars and food markets of the villages which cling to the volcanic slopes of the island, in the capital tempeh is much harder to find, particularly if you are a bule or white person. Whereas tempeh is something of a luxury item for vegetarians and vegans in Europe, in Indonesia it is regarded as peasant food. When eating out in Jakarta, my requests for tempeh, which is almost invariably absent from the menu, are met by disbelief: why would anyone who can afford meat actually want to eat tempeh as opposed to having to eat it due to poverty?

Unable to satisfy my taste for tempeh in the shopping malls and plazas of the capital, I have joined the hard-working masses who spend their evenings eating and socialising in groups along the streets. Here one can buy freshly cooked tempeh fritters from warungs, or wandering street vendors, who push their brightly painted carts around the shabby edges of the city. From the chairs and benches that line the sides of the road, hungry faces look up as they hear the sound of metal spoons being tapped together, the hawkers' jingle that rings out like the daily call to prayer. The warungs serve tempeh goreng or deep fried tempeh, just as you buy bags of chips in England. But to experience the authentic taste of tempeh you need a flame-proof tongue and to leave the buzz of the city for the kampungs or shantytowns where those who have recently migrated to the capital live. Here fresh garlic and ruby chillies are pounded into sambal, or hot sauces, which are poured like lava over the platefuls of tempeh that sit along window sills. In dimly lit kitchens, the air is caramelised with the vapours of tempeh being boiled in chillies and gula Java or Javanese sugar, to make tempeh kering - crispy tempeh. The red sugar used for this comes in the form of a solid block. It is made by refining the sap of coconut palms, which is then poured into empty coconut shells and left to solidify. Tempeh manis or sweet tempeh is also made using this sugar and is sold by the chunk like toffee.

The taste of tempeh is addictive. I'm down at the kampung twice a day now to get my hit. Unlike many Indonesians I do not yet have rice and tempeh for breakfast, but it cannot be far off. How will I cope back in England? One thing is for sure: I shall be treating everyone who comes for dinner to tempeh. And now that I have seen how it can be cooked I hope it will not just be the nutritional qualities of this wonder food that are commented upon.


Tempeh Goreng - Fried tempeh


  • 1 block of tempeh
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic
  • teaspoon of salt
  • 1 teaspoon of coriander seeds
  • cup of water (flavoured with 1 teaspoon of tamarind)
  • 10 tablespoons of sunflower oil


  1. Cut the tempeh into thick slices and use a sharp knife to score both sides with criss-crosses.
  2. Crush the garlic and coriander seeds and mix them together with the salt. Mix these with the tamarind water in a bowl and soak the slices of tempeh in this solution for five minutes.
  3. Pre-heat the cooking oil and shallow-fry the tempeh until golden brown or barbecue it on skewers. Eat as a snack dipped in sambal or as part of a main meal/

Sambal - Chilli sauce


  • 5 chillies (large green or red)
  • 1 shallot or small onion
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 teaspoon of yeast extract (this replaces the shrimp paste normally used in Indonesia)
  • 1 teaspoon of dark sugar
  • Juice of a small lime


  1. Boil the chillies for five minutes, then take the seeds out and chop them into small pieces. Process or crush these together with the garlic and shallot.
  2. Mix in the yeast extract, sugar and lime juice. This sambal should be used within a day or two. It is best served in a small dish so that people can help themselves or dip their food into it. The temperature of the sauce can be adjusted to taste by varying the amount and types of chillies used. Bell and bird's eye chillies are the hottest; the largest are the least hot.

Tempeh Kering - Crispy tempeh


  • 1 block of tempeh
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 8 shallots
  • 1 fresh red chilli or teaspoon of chilli powder
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 tablespoon of dark sugar (instead of gula Java)
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • Vegetable oil


  1. Cut the tempeh into thin slices and then chop into postage stamp sized pieces.
  2. Shallow fry these until golden brown, then drain and set to one side, keeping them warm.
  3. Process or crush the garlic and shallots together. Put two tablespoons of oil in a wok and fry the garlic/shallot paste off for one minute.
  4. Add the chilli, paprika, sugar and salt. Fry these all together for another minute, then add the tempeh and stir well until the pieces are coated with the mixture and it begins to caramelise on them.
  5. Serve on rice or as a side dish.

Tempeh Manis - Sweet tempeh


  • 1 block of tempeh
  • 1 small onion
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic
  • 1 teaspoon of coriander seeds
  • teaspoon of ground ginger
  • 1 fresh red chilli or teaspoon of chilli powder
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tablespoons of dark sugar
  • 1 cup of water (flavoured with 1 teaspoon of tamarind)
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 2 tablespoons of sunflower oil


  1. Chop the tempeh into thick slices.
  2. Process or crush the garlic, coriander seeds and chilli. Thinly slice the onion. 
  3. Put the tempeh in a saucepan with all the other ingredients (except the oil) and cover with a lid. Bring to the boil and keep boiling until the water has evaporated, making sure the contents of the saucepan do not burn.
  4. Everything should be left to cool for five minutes and then transferred into a frying pan with the pre-heated oil. Turn the slices of tempeh once. When they have a dark brown caramelised coating they are ready to serve. They can be eaten on their own as a snack, or with rice and coconut curry. 

By Phil Mulligan

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