A friend has been transferred to Indonesia for work and though he talks about the subsequent loneliness there, I only half-hear him because my mind is on tempeh.
To the uninitiated, tempeh (also tempe) looks like beans suspended in a creamy mixture; quite right that, although I’ve heard some nastier descriptions. A thin cake made by fermenting soybeans, it’s a food (as well as its related products) whose importance can’t be overemphasized in Indonesia.
Growing up in Indonesia, our “ibu” (EE-boo; mother or ”˜yaya’) would fry slices of tempeh and serve them as a side dish with sambal (hot chili paste). Other times, my mom would include nuggets of tempeh in her vegetable stir-fry similar to pinakbet but with a decidedly more Indonesian flavor. Paired with fried terong (eggplant), it’s no wonder that my sisters and I learned to appreciate all sorts of vegetables and levels of spiciness.
I’ve forgotten about tempeh, relegating it to the backroom of my flavor memories until I chance upon a local magazine article featuring it. I miss it almost immediately. Luckily for me, I don’t have to embark on an involved tempeh quest as my dad is about to head out to Indonesia and he promises to bring me back a pack.
Tempeh is made from whole soybeans that are washed, soaked, partially de-hulled, and boiled briefly. When cooled to room temperature, the beans are inoculated with a starter culture of mold and then portioned out and wrapped in banana leaves to ferment (to the required stages of ripeness, just like cheese). Though tempeh’s origins are murky, it’s been a food source for Indonesians for centuries and it was only in the 20th century that the rest of the world caught on.
My dad hands me my tempeh cautioning me to note the “use-by” date. It lasts for up to a week when refrigerated and a month in the freezer. For lunch today, my electric deep-fryer is sitting out on the counter so I decide to cook the tempeh of my childhood. Tempeh’s firm, almost meaty texture takes well to steaming, boiling, frying, and its consistency allows itselfÂ to be imbued with the flavors of the food it’s cooked with. I also like tempeh sautéed in kecap manis (sweet, thick soy sauce) or chopped small and tossed with meats or raw salads laced with sambal (but of course).
To me, tempeh is devoid of smell, but if really pressed (me not the tempeh), I’d say it has notes of cottage cheese. Some people say tempeh looks gross because of the soybeans all squished up together; frankly, I don’t have a problem with it. It slices easily, and then I take my dad’s suggestion to “soak it for 15 minutes” so that it’ll be crunchy. I fear frying but my electric deep fryer makes it a cinch. It keeps the oil at the correct temperature all throughout so the food is never oily. Hooray! I fry the tempeh for a mere 30 seconds on each side just enough to cook it. Since I’m feeling virtuous, I pair my tempeh with some brown rice and a side dish of sautéed Chinese cabbage. Extending the soybean theme, I pour myself a glass of soy milk. Now, how’s that for health! Tempeh, by the way, is terribly nutritious. Containing about 40% protein, tempeh’s carbohydrates contain no starch, it’s unsaturated, and possesses all the eight essential amino acids and vitamins we need.
So what does tempeh taste like? Beany and chewy. Not exactly my most eloquent of descriptions but it’s spot on. Tempeh doesn’t taste like edamame (fresh soy beans still in their green pods) nor does it taste anything like soy milk. What it does taste like is that of a smoky, somewhat mushy bean whose inherent flavor flits by in a flash before succumbing to the flavors it’s been cooked with or the chili paste it’s been smeared with. For me, tempeh tastes like my delicious, spicy-with-sambal-drizzled-with-kecap-manis childhood.
Tempeh is available in Manila at the following numbers:
0917-8213484 / 929-7790