Tempeh is not only tempting… Tempeh is in demand! The ancient ingredient, which has long been a staple in traditional Indonesian cuisine, is no longer favored by vegans only, nor is it relegated to niche health food stores or to the ‘healthy’ aisle. Rather, the high-protein meat substitute is being embraced by a growing number of consumers, is available in most supermarkets, and is becoming a featured ingredient in foodservice menus. So much so that experts estimate the global tempeh market will be worth a whopping $258.7 million USD by 2025, with strong growth expected especially in the U.S. and the U.K., where the popularity of plant-based proteins is on the rise.
The good news for restaurant owners is that tempeh is easy to cook, is available ready-to-eat or can be made from scratch, and is primed to enjoy strong retail demand from health-conscious consumers, novelty-seeking customers, and those who care about environmental sustainability. In fact, given the high percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions attributed to meat production, soy-based tempeh is especially appealing. (For the 411 on other recommended plant-based ingredients, check out our article series on Ancient Grains and Seeds).
And if all this wasn’t enough to send tempeh up the consumer popularity charts, it is also gaining traction as a good source of non-dairy calcium, as a clean label ingredient, and as a trending probiotic food that is good for your gut.
Tempeh Quick Facts
If you want to know about more tempeh, you’ve come to the right place. Here is the dish on what we know about tempeh:
- It is a staple in Indonesian cooking
- It is one of the most protein-packed meat alternatives on the market, with 16 grams of protein per 3-ounce serving
- It can be eaten straight from the package or can be grilled, baked, or fried
- You can make tempeh from scratch
- It can be cut into slabs or cubes and prepared like a steak
- It has a strong nutty flavor on its own but easily takes on the flavor of any dish it is added to
- In addition to its high protein and fiber content, tempeh adds a chewy texture to any dish
- Super-absorbent, you can marinate tempeh to create a wide variety of recipes
- It is popularly added to sauces, stews, chili, tacos, pastas, and sandwiches. You can also crumble tempeh and sprinkle on salads, soups, and casseroles
- Tempeh is low in carbohydrates and sodium, but bursting with vitamins and minerals. Per 3 oz. serving, its nutritional profile is as follows: 162 calories, 16 grams protein, 9 grams carbs, 9 grams fat, 9 milligrams sodium, 12% of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of iron, 9% of the RDI for calcium, 12% of the RDI for niacin, 18% of the RDI for riboflavin, 18% of the RDI for magnesium, 54% of the RDI for manganese, 21% of the RDI for phosphorus.
Tempeh was first made in Indonesia over 2,000 years ago by wrapping soybeans in hibiscus leaves. Rhizopus oligosporus, a mold that naturally adheres to the leaves, then combined with the surrounding hot, humid environment, giving rise to the fermented product.
Interested in a chef-worthy piece of tempeh trivia? While tempeh in modern times is considered somewhat of a luxury product for vegans and vegetarians, it has always been considered a ‘peasant food’ in Indonesian culture – that is, a protein substitute for those who cannot afford meat. This is why you will you will find blocks of tempeh leaves sold cheaply in outdoor Indonesian bazaars and food markets, as well as in the populous Java, but will be hard-pressed to find tempeh sold in the capital city of Jakarta, home of the upper classes.
So when and how did tempeh make its Western world debut? Its claim to fame and rise to food industry stardom can be dated to 1979, when William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, authors of the best-selling The Book of Tofu, released The Book of Tempeh. If you are looking for original tempeh recipes, as well as a guide on how to make tempeh, check out their recipes for tempeh guacamole, baked tempeh in coconut-milk, and more.
How to Make Tempeh from Scratch
If tempeh is not available from your foodservice suppliers, or if you are looking for a less expensive alternative, your chefs can make their own tempeh. (The process is similar to sprouting your own beans, making homemade yogurt, or making sourdough). The procedure will take a couple of days, as tempeh must be fermented overnight, and you will need a secret ingredient: powdered Rhizopus oligosporus culture. However, if not available from a local food manufacturer or health food store, combining vinegar with another fermenting agent will do the trick.
Instructions: Soak soy beans overnight until they swell and burst. Discard the skins that float to the top of the bowl. Using a roller pin, split the beans into halves or quarters (Note: Here is another bite of tempeh trivia to savor: In Java, the beans are trampled on by barefoot villagers in the same way wine is made from grapes!). Boil for 20 minutes, drain, and cool.
Next, sprinkle the beans with a small amount of powdered culture (or fermenting agent) and mix well. Wrap beans in perforated plastic bags or tin foil, making sure there is adequate air supply for mold to grow. Alternatively, if you work in foodservice, you may be able to purchase an industrial airing cupboard. Finally, incubate the beans for 24-48 hours under 25°-30°C temperatures – and voila! Homemade tempeh is ready to eat and enjoy!
Tofu vs. Tempeh
Many comparisons have been drawn between tofu and tempeh as they share many attributes, yet at the same time they are in fact quite different. Since knowing your ingredients is part of the bread-and-butter of every good chef and restaurant owner, here are some facts to add to your culinary inventory of knowledge.
Both tempeh and tofu come from East Asia. Soy-based, they are both excellent sources of protein and can replace meat in recipes. Moreover, not only is the soy bean nearly 40% protein, but it contains all of the essential amino acids and is said to have a digestibility rate of 95%, making tofu and tempeh high quality protein sources.
The fat naturally contained in the soy bean is mostly unsaturated or ‘the good kind,’ which helps reduce cholesterol levels and makes tempeh and tofu heart-healthy food choices. Highly versatile, both tempeh and tofu can be added to main dishes, side dishes, appetizers, desserts, power bars, shakes, smoothies, and more.
In texture and in appearance, however, the ingredients are far from identical. Tofu is white in color with a wet, smooth texture. Tempeh is a brownish shade and is dry. Tofu is flavorless and comprised of a soft block of ground-up soy milk curds. Tempeh is savory and is made from the whole bean, which is compressed and fermented to form a block. Tofu is available for purchase in several varieties – silken, soft, firm, and extra-firm. Tempeh is sold in only flat, rectangular pieces.
While it’s been around for a while, many foodservice pros and their customers, are unfamiliar with tempeh. To update your restaurant and catering service menus, to jumpstart your culinary journey into new territories, and to tickle the taste buds of your customers, here is a sensational tempeh recipe to experiment with. (Close your eyes and imagine the taste, texture, and heavenly smell of baked tempeh as a savory, sweet peanut sauce).
Marinated Peanut Tempeh
- 8 ounces tempeh
- 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes or chili flakes
- 1 1/2 tbsp. sesame oil (if you want to omit the oil, add some extra soy sauce or maple syrup instead; you can also substitute with almond or cashew butter)
- 2 tbsp. tamari or soy sauce
- 3 tbsp. maple syrup
- 2 tbsp. lime juice
- Soak tempeh in a saucepan and boil over medium heat to remove natural bitterness
- Steam tempeh for 10-12 minutes
- Rinse, pat dry, and cut into thin, bite-size pieces (the smaller, the better so that they will soak up the marinade)
- Prepare marinade by combining the remaining ingredients. (Note: You can also adjust the ingredients to achieve the desired flavor – i.e. sweeten with more maple syrup, heat and spice things up with more crushed pepper and chili
- Add tempeh to the marinade and toss to coat. Stir occasionally to ensure even coating
- Optional: Before baking, for added flavor, drizzle with some extra tamari/maple syrup/soy sauce,/li>
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 C)
- Bake for 20-30 minutes until deep golden brown
- Serve and enjoy! (leftovers can be stored for up to three days in the fridge in a food storage container)