• Tempeh - spelt tempe in Indonesia - features in many dishes across the archipelago. (Coconut & Sambal)Source: Coconut & Sambal
Indonesians have been eating a fermented soybean food called tempeh for centuries. This is why you should, too.
By
Cat Woods

23 Jul 2021 - 11:55 AM  UPDATED 26 Jul 2021 - 9:51 AM

At many eateries in Indonesia, you'll find a fermented soy cake called tempeh (tempe in Indonesia). Whether fried, baked, grilled, sauteed or steamed, this protein-rich ingredient is cubed in curries and sliced in salads. You'll also find them in noodle dishes, mains and side dishes.

Tempeh is gaining favour in Australia. It's high in protein and fibre, low in fat and rich in vitamins including calcium and zinc. It's the only plant-based source of vitamin B12.

Indonesian-Australian chef and author Lara Lee was raised in Sydney. After studying journalism, a company-sponsored her move to London to work in sales. She still resides there, but now she cooks instead. By her early 30s, she'd graduated from culinary school and worked across various Michelin restaurants before opting to cook food that represented her cultural roots.

"We first visited Indonesia as a family when I was about 20 years old; we were too poor to visit before then," she says. "My father ordered tempeh at a restaurant in Kupang, Timor, where he was born. He described it as one of his favourite foods growing up. It was a tempe goreng dish (fried tempeh) of some variety — crispy, golden and very moreish. My love for it was immediate — it was nutty, toasty and textured and it had absorbed all the flavours of garlic and ground coriander it had been marinated in."

Its origin is considered the Indonesian island of Java, when many centuries ago the discarded residue of soybeans interacted with microbial spores in the air to naturally ferment into an edible, tasty protein. Today, tempeh is made in the home right across Indonesia, which inevitably results in differences of texture and flavour resulting from variations in soil, the type and quality of soybeans, the leaves used to wrap the tempeh (typically banana leaves, but not always) and the preferred cooking method. 

"Crispy, golden and very moreish. My love for it was immediate — it was nutty, toasty and textured and it had absorbed all the flavours of garlic and ground coriander it had been marinated in."

Tempeh made from soybeans is the most traditional type, but it is also made using mung beans, red beans, black beans and broadbeans. The fermentation process is the same, regardless of which bean you use, but the time it takes to ferment each differs.

Lee explains some of the different types of beans. "Fresh tempeh is white in colour, with a shelf life of three to five days and the kind you will find in Indonesia. It tastes creamy, with a bright, mushroomy flavour."

Pasteurised tempeh is usually tan in colour with a longer shelf life and has a subtler flavour.

"I love the lively flavour of fresh tempeh, so if you live nearby an artisan producer, it is worth seeking out.'

The recipes in her cookbook, Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from My Indonesian Kitchen, are a paean to her father's homeland of which tempeh is a central ingredient.

"Tempeh is nutty and toasty in flavour naturally, but it is also porous, so it acts as a wonderful sponge.

"The savoury meatiness, umami flavour and texture of tempeh is amplified when it is deep-fried, but when it is simmered in a sauce or broth it absorbs all of the flavours it is cooked in."

"Gado-gado means to mix it up, so this is a brilliant way to enjoy tempeh because, with a few different vegetables, some crunchy crackers and peanut sauce, you can very easily create your own version of gado-gado at home."

If baking, steaming or grilling tempeh, Lee prefers to marinate the tempeh in spices or a simple kecap manis glaze. "But tempeh is also wonderfully delicious simply deep-fried or pan-fried in oil and sprinkled with sea salt as a moreish snack."

Lara Lee in Indonesia, where tempeh or tempe is a key ingredient.

Lee explains that gado-gado is one of Indonesia's national dishes that's found everywhere, from street food stalls to high-end restaurants. It's a vegetable salad served with tofu, tempeh and boiled eggs, tossed together with peanut sauce and served with emping (crunchy crackers made from the melinjo nut).

It's believed that the dish has existed since peanuts and chillies were first introduced to Indonesia by Portuguese and Spanish traders in the 16th century, and variations of the dish are enjoyed across Indonesia's 17,500 islands.

"Gado-gado means to mix it up, so this is a brilliant way to enjoy tempeh because, with a few different vegetables, some crunchy crackers and peanut sauce, you can very easily create your own version of gado-gado at home."

Not only is tempeh delicious, nutritious and increasingly easy to find in Australian supermarkets and delis, it's also good for the planet. Compared to beef, tempeh is four per cent of the price in Indonesia and produces a fifth of total carbon emissions, consuming a tenth of total energy according to the Indonesia Tempe Movement. The movement's one-minute guide to making tempe is worth a watch.

Recipes are extracted from Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from 'My Indonesian Kitchen' (Bloomsbury Publishing).

cook the book
Peanut sauce (sambal kacang)

The biggest difference between peanut sauces is that some are made with peanut butter and others are made from scratch with raw peanuts, fried in oil.

Gado-gado (salad with peanut sauce)

There are many dishes served with peanut sauce. In Indonesia, none is more famous than gado-gado.

Sweet soy tempeh (tempe manis)

Tempe manis is a stir-fry that is rich, sweet and spicy all at once.

Prawn and chicken fried noodles (mie goreng udang)

Mie goreng translates as ‘fried noodles’ and there are as many variations as there are islands in Indonesia. Common to each version are the chewy egg noodles that form the base of the dish, coated in a delicious sweet and salty sauce, stirred together with vegetables, meat, tofu or seafood.

Lamb martabak

This martabakis one of my favourite snacks to eat. With coriander- and cumin-spiced lamb encased in pastry, it’s Indonesia’s answer to a Cornish pasty.