Originating in Indonesia where it is a staple, tempeh is a fermented soy bean cake that is bound together by a white mold. Tempeh is high in protein and has a firm, meat-like texture, and has become a popular replacement for meat in both vegan and vegetarian diets.
To make tempeh, whole soy beans are soaked overnight, dehulled and partly cooked in water, then inoculated with a piece of tempeh or a starter culture that contains Rhizopus mold spores (either Rhizopus oligosporus or Rhizopus oryzae). The mixture is left to ferment for 24 to 36 hours at a warm room temperature of around 30˚C (86˚F). The tempeh is harvested when the soy beans are bound into a solid white mass by the mold mycelium, distinguished by an even white color, firm texture and yeasty aroma.
At one-MICHELIN-starred Candlenut in Singapore, chef Malcolm Lee uses tempeh in myriad ways in his Peranakan cuisine, which fuses Chinese, Malay and Indonesian cooking traditions. “I think the idea of fermented soy beans and the white mold scares people. I mean, who even thought of fermenting soy beans? Who decided it was safe to eat the mold? It’s all very interesting,” says Lee. “But actually, when it’s been marinated and cooked, it’s very delicious and easy to eat.”
Storing and Using Fresh Tempeh
In a bid to explore the roots of Peranakan cuisine more deeply, the chef has recently been traveling more to neighboring Southeast Asian countries and working closer with local and regional ingredients and producers.
He sources his tempeh from local small-batch producer Tempeh Culture (pictured in the hero image above), which makes its fresh tempeh by hand to order with organic ingredients.
“For years I was using tempeh but I had never seen it being made,” says Lee. “Fresh tempeh is warm and alive, and you open it and there’s an aroma, like bread coming out of the oven. And it has more pronounced flavors than commercial ones you find at the supermarket.”
Fresh tempeh continues to ferment after it is harvested and the temperature of the beans will naturally rise as the mold rapidly grows and multiplies, resulting in the warm sensation. However, an extended fermentation time introduces a sour taste to the tempeh and an undesirable darkening in color. “Fresh tempeh should be kept in the chiller and eaten as soon as possible. If you let it go past, it’s not what you’re looking for but it’s still edible,” advises the chef. While store-bought tempeh is usually vacuum sealed and can be kept in the fridge for about 10 days, fresh tempeh from the market or traditional producers should be kept in the fridge and consumed within three to four days. Uncooked tempeh can be frozen for up to three months.
A Versatile Plant-based Protein
There’s no shortage of ways to eat tempeh. In Malaysia and Indonesia, tempeh is commonly sliced, brined, then pan-fried until the edges are golden-brown and crispy, while the insides remain soft and chewy.
At Candlenut, Lee uses tempeh the traditional way, in dishes like sayur lodeh (curried vegetables) and sambal goreng (chile stir-fry). “Tempeh has a cake-like bite and a nutty flavor that goes well with curries and chilies—a combination I particularly like is sambal goreng with tempeh and petai (bitter beans). Somehow, combining these funky flavors together works very well,” he says.
Lee also uses tempeh in more creative, unconventional ways. He slices them up thinly and deep-fries them to make tempeh chips for dessert, and crumbles them to fry with spices as a garnish for salads, braised dishes and stir-fries. “You could even marinate it and grill it like a satay or serve it on a salad like grilled chicken. Tempeh is super versatile.”
This traditional ingredient is now a trendy meat-free option, so pick up a block of tempeh the next time you’re at the supermarket and have a go at cooking with it.
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