Whenever I lack inspiration in the kitchen, I reach for tempeh (“tempe” in Indonesian). This versatile fermented soybean cake is multi-dimensional; when deep-fried it transforms into crunchy, nutty-flavored bites of umami that even my toddler, on his fussiest of days, gobbles down.
But most of all, tempeh represents Indonesia for me, the place where my dad was born, a taste of my heritage.
What is tempeh and where is it from?
Tempeh (pronounced “tem-pay”) has been hailed as a superfood for some time, but for many people, the cultured soy-based protein remains largely unfamiliar. In Indonesia, where tempeh originated, however, it’s widely used across the full culinary landscape, a celebrated staple that is part of the everyday diet.
Tempeh can be traced back 400 years (and possibly more than 1,000 years!) to the island of Java, where it holds great cultural significance. Considered “the pride of Indonesia,” according to culinary expert William Wongso, tempeh is an accessible and cheap source of protein for Indonesians in a country where meat is not eaten daily due to its expense and is typically reserved for ceremonious occasions or restaurant meals. In its place, Indonesians consume seven kilograms of tempeh per person annually, served day to day with a combination of tofu, vegetables, rice, sambal, and seafood.
For a period of time after Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch in 1945, tempeh’s popularity waned. In President Sukarno’s famous speech to the new country, he declared, “We are a great nation, we are not a tempeh nation,” using tempeh as a metaphor for weakness and capitulation. For decades following, tempeh was looked down upon by the Indonesian upper class, but over time it regained its former glory.
How is tempeh prepared and what does it taste like?
Tempeh is enjoyed in a variety of ways: deep-fried, pan-fried, battered, stir-fried, grilled, steamed, boiled, simmered.