What Is Tempeh, and How do You Cook with It?
There's a wondrous world of plant-based proteins beyond tofu. Tempeh is one you'll want to get to know. Like tofu, tempeh is a soy-based product. It's made by fermenting cooked soybeans and then forming the mixture into a firm, dense cake. Thanks to the magic of fermentation, tempeh is a deeply healthy food, packed with vitamins and prebiotics. We spoke to Amy Chaplin, a vegan chef and James Beard Award-winning cookbook author of At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen and Whole Food Cooking Every Day, to learn more.
What Is Tempeh?
Tempeh originated in Indonesia, specifically on the island of Java, where it is made from whole soybeans that are crushed and wrapped in banana leaves to allow them to ferment—which simply put, is a controlled aging process that allows good bacteria to grow. With time, the crushed soybeans solidify into a block that can be sliced. Whether you're in Java or at home, tempeh should not be eaten raw. Typical Indonesian preparations for tempeh are deep frying or pan frying.
Not Just a Meat Substitute
When it comes to plant-based proteins, it's not uncommon for the conversation to turn toward discussing them as a substitute for meat—but Chaplin calls tempeh a legitimate food all on its own, a fact those in Indonesia already recognize. "They weren't thinking, 'Oh, let's try to do meatless Monday,'" she points out.
Chaplin has a few theories about why tempeh isn't nearly as well-known as tofu is in the United States. "Tofu is smooth and silky and it can be blended into desserts and smoothies. It's so mild, it's easier for a lot of people to palate," she says. "Whereas tempeh's got a sort of toothsome texture and it's slightly bitter. It's more of an acquired kind of taste."
Related: How Vegetarian Chef Amy Chaplin Encourages Her Toddler to Eat His Vegetables
Tempeh is high in protein, cholesterol-free, and low in fat. It's made with entire soybeans, so you're not losing any nutritional goodness of the plant in the process of its creation. "It's fermented, so it's easier to digest," Chaplin adds.
Buying and Using Tempeh
Here in the U.S., you won't need to turn over any banana leaves when sourcing tempeh. "Most people are only going to [be able to] get the one kind, which is pasteurized in the refrigerated section and lasts quite a long time," says Chaplin. "If you're buying it fresh like that, you don't need to do much at all to it except a simple pan fry," she says. "When it's freshly made, it's almost spongy and so delicious tasting." Chaplin recommends frying tempeh using coconut oil, because the flavors pair nicely and coconut oil can handle higher heat cooking. "Just cut it into quarter-inch slices and pan fry it until golden," she says. "Sprinkle some sea salt on it and it's absolutely to die for."
Steaming tempeh before cooking not only mellows some bitterness, it also helps the tempeh better absorb marinade. Chaplin also suggests slicing it into thin planks. "If you're going to just chop up large cubes, [the flavor is] never going to get into the middle even with steaming and marinating for a long time. But if you just do a quick steam, it's warm and no longer a dense compact cake, you can pour the flavorful marinade over and just stick it in the oven."
Aside from pan frying, Chaplin recommends adding an "assertive" marinade to tempeh and then baking it until the marinade cooks off and the succulent tempeh is saturated with flavor. "It needs some sweetness," she says, citing maple syrup, Dijon mustard, tamari, citrus juices, and herbs like rosemary all as winning components for a marinade that will pack a delicious punch.