Thanks to its highly nutritional make-up and diverse preparation possibilities, tempe is being hailed as Indonesia’s “gift to the world”.
At the 2017 edition of Ubud Food Festival held in May, fermentation was one of the hottest topics. From festival-goers attending the soldout masterclass of Wild Fermentation with Locavore’s LocaLAB, to the standing-room-only crowd that gathered for chef Ragil Imam Wibowo of Nusa restaurant’s cooking demonstration of Indonesia’s Fermented Food, everyone was frothy with excitement for local insights into one of the culinary world’s food trends du jour.
Closest to the hearts of the locals was the panel discussion of Indonesia’s Gift to the World, where the spotlight was cast on the country’s pre-eminent fermented superfood: tempe. Featured speakers included Wibowo; food science and nutrition specialist Professor Florentinus Gregorius Winarno; and founder of the Indonesia Tempe Movement (ITM), Wida Winarno. There are possibly no better tempe evangelists than the latter two. Despite being 79-years-old, the sprightly professor Winarno, with a head full of black hair, looks decades younger; while his daughter Wida’s supple and wrinkle-free skin belies her 51 years of age. The family attributes their seemingly age-defying abilities to the daily consumption of this fermented soy product.
Tempe has been a stable source of protein in Indonesia for centuries. The fermented soy product is said to have originated from the island of Java, discovered during tofu production when discarded soybean residue caught microbial spores from the air and grew a certain whitish fungi around itself. When it was found to be edible, and tasty at that, people began producing it proper.
To prepare tempe, whole soybeans are first soaked in water to soften. They are then dehulled and partly cooked. An acidulent, usually vinegar, is sometimes added to reduce the pH levels, creating a more suitable environment for mould growth. Next, a fermentation starter that contains the spores of fungus Rhizopus oligosporus or Rhizopus oryzae is mixed into the soybeans. The beans are spread into a thin layer and left to ferment at a temperature of 27 to 33°C for a day or two. By then, the beans would be bound together by a mat of furry white mycelium. While it may have black or greyish spots, pink, yellow, or blue colouration means it is over-fermented. High quality, plain soy tempe has an earthy mushroom-like aroma.
Traditionally, tempe is made using Hibiscus tiliaceus leaves or banana leaves, as the undersides of the leaves are covered in downy hairs (trichomes), to which the fungus Rhizopus oligosporus can be naturally found adhering. Thus when the soybeans are wrapped with the leaves and left aside, fermentation occurs naturally.
All across the country, tempe is usually produced at home. This has given rise to many variations in its flavour and texture throughout the different Indonesia regions. Wibowo shares, “Regional tempe differences result from a few things: the soybean that they use, because every region’s soil gives a unique taste to the organic local soy that households will use; inoculated leaves used to wrap beans, which can range from waru (Hibiscus tiliaceus) leaves, teak leaves to banana leaves; the thickness at which the tempe is left to ferment —for example, tempe from Malang, East Java is very thin as the preferred cooking preparation there is to batter then deep fry them.”
Like its distant Japanese cousin natto, tempe, as a fermented soy food, carries highly nutritional benefits. When it comes to soy, fermentation not only makes the protein within more digestible, but also minerals like calcium, zinc, and iron more soluble; as well as many phytonutrients, including isoflavone, bioavailable. Fermentation also breaks down conglycinn in soy into smaller peptides that serve as antioxidants.
Tempe itself is high in protein and low in fat, and contains a host of vitamins. In fact, it is the only plant-based source of vitamin B12. Apart from being able to help reduce cholesterol, increase bone density, reduce menopausal symptoms, and promote muscle recovery, tempe has a lot of polyphenols, which are turbo-charged antioxidants that protect our skin cells against oxidative damage and slow down the ageing process. That is something the Winarnos can attest to. And you don’t even have to ingest it. According to Wida Winarno, tempe crushed and mixed with water into a paste can even make a good face mask, resulting in the skin on your face becoming as “smooth as a baby’s bottom”.
Many of us in Southeast Asia would have come across tempe dished out at nasi padangstalls or served as part of gado gado. “In Indonesia, we enjoy tempe in many ways: as a main course (usually in curries) or a side dish to be eaten with rice, as a deep-fried snack, or even blended into smoothies and healthy juices,” shares the younger Winarno. The fermented soy food’s firm yet absorbent texture means it can be cooked in myriad ways: braised, sautéed, or grilled.
The most traditional way of consuming tempe in Indonesia though, is fried and paired with sambal. Wibowo serves this in his modern Indonesian restaurant Nusa in Jakarta to let “diners enjoy the original flavour of the tempe”. He adds, “We even make our own tempe from mung beans and nuts, to give diners a variety of flavours.”
For diners who might be apprehensive trying tempe as is, Wibowo’s soup lodeh (coconut milk with vegetable soup) can ease you into appreciating this heavily-flavoured fermented soy food. Using the traditional ingredients of sayur lodeh—various local vegetables and coconut milk, Wibowo blends them all, including tempe, into a cream soup, which he garnishes with a slice of fried tempe and coconut oil. He is experimenting with making tempe gelato or bread in a bid to widen the appreciation of this superfood.
Novel ways to enjoy tempe
Over in the island of Bali, fellow proponents of Indonesian produce, Eelke Plasmeijer and Ray Adriansyah of Locavore , No.49 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant list, are also finding novel ways to get more people to consume this Indonesian superfood. Plasmeijer laments, “Tempe is such an underrated but super interesting product. It may be one of the best food inventions from Indonesia as it is such a versatile product. Unfortunately, not a lot of international diners can really appreciate it.”
Unsurprisingly, the chefs make their own tempe in Locavore, using different types of legumes. “[We use] soybeans, mung beans, black beans, red beans, broad beans and many more. We found that soybean tempe is the most likeable one in terms of flavours, and red beans was the most challenging one to ferment. The fermentation process works the same for all the beans, it’s just the length of fermentation time that varies,” Adriansyah adds.
Over the last year, they’ve presented tempe in a couple of dishes at their modern European-Indonesian restaurant, both times featuring unconventional flavour pairing and presentation methods. Adriansyah notes, “One time we did a dish of braised tempein tauco sauce (fermented soybeans), tauco emulsion, bell pepper, General Fido sauce (our version of General Tso sauce).” The other dish was a Mexican-inspired tempe mole, where crunchy pieces of tempe accompanied a spicy and chocolate-rich sauce.
Also recognizing the complementary pairing of tempe and chocolate is 24-year-old Amadeus Driando Ahnan, co-founder of ITM and founder of Tempe Bar—he also happens to be the son of Wida Winarno. As a Food Science PhD student at University of Massachusetts Amherst, Ahnan started Tempe Bar to make affordable and yummy, high-protein snacks. Ahnan says of his inspiration to create the chocolate-covered baked tempe, “Tempe is about 20 percent protein, similar to the percentage of protein in beef, and its texture of ‘packed beans’ resemble granola bars. [For the bars] I wanted to have layers of flavors and sensations that complement each other. For example, the tempe is the source of nuttiness, earthiness, and chunky texture; the dark chocolate gives richness and slight bitterness. I add toppings like cranberry and coconut to balance everything out with fruitiness and savouriness respectively.
Having the same protein quality as meat and the ability to take on many flavours and textures make tempe a great meat substitute, something the vegetarian and vegan community have been quick and fervent in adopting. You can find vegetarian burgers with tempe patties in Ubud, Bali as easily as you can find tempe-substituted BLTs (TLTs, rather) in Portland and San Francisco, U.S.A. But outside of these vegetarian-friendly capitals and possibly Southeast Asia, the idea of tempe as a nutritious superfood ripe for global consumption is still taking some time to catch on.
Which is why the Winarno family founded the Indonesia Tempe Movement (ITM). “Indonesia boasts a rich culinary heritage and many of our produce are worth shouting about. But as food and bio-technologists, we saw that tempe is more than just a traditional food. Its uniqueness, health benefits, affordability, and its cultural role in providing nutrition to generations of Indonesians was why we decided to focus on it,” Wida Winarno explains.
She notes that, since 2014, the organisation has been holding workshops throughout Indonesia to promote the making and appreciation of tempe: “To drum up excitement about tempe, we teach the public about the historical and cultural significance, as well as health benefits of the fermented soy product. We also provide tempe-making training to the unemployed, drop-out students, and reformers in prisons and drug rehabilitation centres.”
Outside of the country, ITM has been invited to give talks and tempe workshops in countries such as Australia, the Netherlands, and the U.K.
Yet, there is more that can be done to raise tempe’s status as a superfood to be reckoned with. Wibowo notes, “Making tempe is very easy and practical. As an Indonesian chef, I want to introduce it to the world. I really recommend Indonesian embassies around the world to conduct workshops and festivals every year, to introduce tempe to global diners who still know little about it.”