I first tried tempeh four years ago, at a tiny stall in the main market in Yogyakarta, a city on the Indonesian island of Java. I barged through the busy street, bustling past souvenir kiosks and colourful piles of vegetables, up to an unremarkable booth, where a man was flipping a hefty wok over a high flame. A cloud of fragrant aromas hovered above him. “Tempeh goreng,” the hawker told me as he handed me a newspaper scrap filled with golden brown, perfectly crispy slices of deep-fried tempeh. Tossed in soy sauce, grated ginger, tamarind and sambal, a chilli paste, it tasted savoury, nutty, almost meaty – and was surprisingly addictive. When I learned that the thick, firm patty was made from fermented soybeans, I couldn’t believe it. I had eaten tofu many times, but always found it plain, bland even. Tempeh was entirely different.
For the rest of the trip, I ate my way through its variations across Indonesia: from tempeh bacem, braised in spices, tamarind and palm sugar, to kripik tempeh (crisp crackers made of the stuff). It seemed to be people’s favourite snack and it became mine too.
My partner’s hankering for tempeh runs deeper. He’s Filipino but grew up in Jakarta. During his childhood he ate tempeh every other day. He would munch on crisp tempeh while watching movies with friends, as if it were popcorn. He’d buy it at school, when street vendors would park their carts outside the gates and lure flocks of hungry children between classes. His mother made it regularly for dinner. After he left Jakarta, he sought it in Indiana, where he studied, and later in Hong Kong, where we met and still live. He’d always try to find an Indonesian restaurant or a speciality store that would stock it.
On one of our first dates he took me to a shop in Hong Kong to buy tempeh. The store caters to the city’s Indonesian domestic workers (there are some 150,000 of them), and sells tempeh fresh, piled in plastic baskets, for less than £1 ($1.31) for a 250g pack. It runs out fast – people, mostly women, queue up early in the morning to buy it. These days my partner and I still manage to get our fix at least twice a week.
Tempeh probably originated in Java several centuries ago (the earliest known written reference to “têmpê” dates back to 1815, but many historians believe it originated long before then). Tempeh was likely first made by accident in an attempt to preserve soybeans – a staple of the Indonesian diet – from heat. Soybeans were wrapped in hibiscus leaves and left out in the tropical climate overnight, causing a fungus to grow on the leaves. The humid weather helped trigger a fermentation process, which formed a white, fibrous mould around each soybean, creating the tempeh cake. For locals, it was a humble, highly adaptable ingredient, a poor man’s meat that tasted better than tofu and could better draw out the flavours of Indonesian cooking.
Until the early 20th century, tempeh remained mostly a Javanese staple. But as it began spreading, recipes and dishes that used it were developed in different parts of the archipelago, across backyard kitchens, households, restaurants and street stalls. Its popularity is partly down to its price – soy products are fairly inexpensive in the country – but mostly to its versatility. Tempeh can be cut into thin slices, glazed in sweet soy sauce, moulded into fritters and much more. It can also be made with other legumes, cereals, grains and even coconut, a variation that has proved popular in the more rural, deprived areas of Indonesia.
A larger manufacturing industry of small factories, workshops and village co-operatives employs thousands to make tempeh. It uses traditional production methods, from cracking and dehulling to washing the soybeans in big tubs, barrels or even rivers, before soaking and boiling them. The beans are then laid out to dry and inoculated with the fungal spore. Making tempeh is also a household tradition, with Indonesian families using fermentation formulas passed on through generations.
When I seek tempeh outside Asia, it’s a different experience. Tempeh sits next to the plant-based alternatives in health-food stores. It’s more expensive – up to £5 for a mere 150 grams – and is often touted as tofu’s better-tasting cousin. With the rise of veganism and vegetarian diets, its consumption is on the rise and more Western companies have started making it. The tempeh and tofu market in America increased by 11% from 2017 to 2018, according to US Soy, an industry body.
Tempeh is even getting a rebrand in parts of South-East Asia. A younger generation of tempeh-makers is catering to a growing number of locals who are as concerned about wellness as their Western counterparts. Online platforms like Tempeh Culture, a company based in Singapore, are selling DIY tempeh-making kits for the fermentation-obsessed. The Indonesian Tempe Movement, a non-profit, runs talks and social-media campaigns to raise awareness of tempeh’s nutritional benefits. But their “#tempechallenge” campaign is dissonant from the fresh batch of the stuff that my partner and I buy from the same store in Hong Kong each week: we’re more concerned with getting there before the tempeh runs out.