Delicious Tempeh On Our First Attempt

In this post, we make Indonesian tempeh, a fermented soybean cake. Sorry, nothing to do with construction of our shipping container house, except to say that it has been raining, raining, raining. Here is a short video of one of our pretty-much-daily sprinkles:

Yes, dear Colorado friends, as much in an hour as you get in a year. Neither is better, just sayin’. Half an hour will fill a leaky wheelbarrow.

In the mean time, Cynthia and I have been craving tempeh. If you don’t know, tempeh is a common Indonesian food made from soybeans and a starter culture that ferments the beans. The fermentation forms the beans into a cake that is somewhat nutty or mushroomy in aroma and taste. Being fermented, it has vitamin B-12, generally lacking in the vegetarian food group so it is an important food for me, a vegetarian.

If you haven’t eaten tempeh, before you go all “yuck” on me because of the repulsive idea that it is fermented, remember cheese, yogurt, real pickles and sauerkraut (not that chemical-laden stuff in jars and cans at the supermarket), beer, wine, champagne, and yeasted bread. You get the idea. It’s just different, and it is worth a try.

You can slice and fry tempeh, maybe put some tamari (like soy sauce) on it and it is good like bacon. You can crumble it, steam or fry it and season it for meat substitute in tacos. When I say “meat substitute,” I don’t necessarily mean that it tastes like meat; I mean that it is a good source of protein. Tempeh makes a mean Ruben sandwich or wrap.  Generally, it can replace any meat.

We have been able to buy it at Organica, the only natural food store in Panama, and it may be available at some of the Asian groceries but we haven’t checked that out. Being a frozen imported product, it is quite expensive and more often than not, out of stock. So we decided to make it ourselves.

First, you need to know how to make the stuff. Having never made tempeh, I Googled and watched several YouTube videos including this one and took notes.

Second, you need soybeans. We haven’t been able to find them here in Panama so we some. This was a bit on the expensive side what with the shipping. You can make tempeh from other beans and grains, so we will probably buy other beans locally the next time. The protein content is lower with other beans, but I eat a ton of beans all the time anyway and am still alive.

Third, you need the fermentation culture. We ordered online from Gem Cultures in Washington state. A small packet has enough culture for ten pounds of tempeh.

Fourth, you need an incubator. I bought a Styrofoam cooler and a 7-watt light bulb. I also bought ( a terrarium heater control. I wired up a light socket, screwed in the light bulb, and plugged it into the terrarium heater control. The heater control has a probe that I duct taped inside the cooler. I put a piece of aluminum foil over the bulb to spread the heat. I took some bamboo skewers and made a rack above the light bulb for the tempeh. Here’s what the incubator looks like:

We did the process and it was very easy.

  1. Soak a pound of soybeans 24 hours.
  2. Under running water, squeeze the beans in your hands to split them in half and remove the hulls. The hulls float to the top and are easy to skim off.
  3. Boil the beans in a pot for 30-60 minutes until al dente.
  4. Plug in the incubator, set it for 85 degrees, and let it come up to temperature.
  5. Rinse, drain, cool, and dry the beans.
  6. Using clean equipment, sprinkle a teaspoon of the starter over the beans and mix in completely.
  7. Spoon the beans into zipper sandwich bags to make a layer about a half inch thick. Our batch made three bags. Seal the bags, then poke holes in the bags every half inch or so so the starter can breathe.
  8. Put the bags-o-beans on the rack in the incubator.
  9. Let the starter work for 24 hours or so then take a look. At 24 hours, not much was viable in our bags, just a bunch of moisture on the inside of the bags. We wondered if the starter was okay, as we had had it for nearly two years. But I put the lid back on and checked again later. At 30 hours the beans were solidified into cakes, and everything inside the bags was appropriately covered with the white mold. There was a tiny tinge of black mold, which is perfectly fine, but white is preferred, so I removed the bags and declared the tempeh done. Here’s what it looks like:

Jabo approved

So last night we had our first tempeh in perhaps a year. We cooked a bag of pasta; it was very substantial, like edges cut off lasagna noodles. I had brought some basil home from the market earlier in the day and Cynthia made fresh basil pesto that held well to the pasta. I steamed and sauteed some red bell peppers and strips of tempeh in olive oil. We piled our plates high.

I’ve been eating tempeh since 1980 and can say that this was the best tempeh I have ever eaten. It was nice and fresh, absolutely no off-odor from being frozen or stored too long. Absolutely delicious, moist and nutty, can’t wait to eat it again.

That’s all for now. Go make some tempeh. Bean there done that.