Feeding The Nation
Tempeh – the Javanese Treasure
Known as ‘poor man’s meat’, tempeh is a common item on the dining tables of Javanese families, especially at the end of the month, when money is scarce. However, people around the world are waking up to the potential of this humble fermented food with a subtle earthy flavour as a highly versatile source of vegetarian- and vegan-friendly protein.
There are boundless ways to cook with tempeh: frying, stir-frying, braising and grilling will transform it into tasty and healthy morsels. It can be eaten alone or used in a variety of dishes, from soups to salads and stews. As well as being a staple in Javanese homes, tempeh is omnipresent in Indonesian warung Tegal – small kiosks selling affordable homestyle meals, usually open at lunchtime to cater to lower- and middle-class workers who can’t often afford to eat at restaurants.
Tempeh is scientifically proven to be a superb meat substitute: high in protein, low in saturated fat and cholesterol, naturally low in sugar (hence suitable for diabetics), highly digestible and nutritious, and containing calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and probiotics, as well as anti-cancer isoflavones. It’s also more environmentally friendly to produce than meat. All are worthy reasons to eat more tempeh!
Tempeh’s part in Indonesia’s rich culinary heritage began many centuries ago. The Javanese word kedele (soy) first appeared in the tale of Serat Sri Tanjung, believed to have been written around the 12th or 13th century. The earliest reference to tempeh as a staple was found in Serat Centhini, a 12-volume manuscript edited in 1815, about the odysseys of the Sunan Giri Prapen’s three children who escaped Giri, Gresik, East Java.
While tempeh is often sold in plastic packages these days, traditionally it’s mostly wrapped in banana leaves and sometimes in teak leaves. Originally, though, tempeh was swaddled in Hibiscus tiliaceus leaves – daun waru in Indonesian – as the bottom surface of the leaves is coated in feathery hairs to which the mould Rhizopus oligosporus naturally attaches. This particular fungus – now manufactured in powder form – is fundamental to the fermentation process, and it’s the culture responsible for forming the white mycelium that binds the cooked soybeans into a firm yet soft cake.
It doesn’t require sophisticated tools to make a small batch of tempeh, although a warm environment is necessary as it needs to ferment for 24 to 60 hours, ideally at a room temperature of around 30°C to 32°C. If you’re tempted to prepare your own tempeh at home, you can find a detailed tutorial on the Indonesian Tempe Movement’s website (www.tempemovement.com).
A not-for-profit organisation, the Indonesian Tempe Movement was started in 2014 by a food scientist family of mother, son and grandfather: Wida Winarno, Amadeus Driando Ahnan-Winarno and Professor F.G. Winarno – the latter being a founding father of food technology in Indonesia. The inspiring trio aims to increase the awareness of tempeh as a healthy, sustainable and affordable source of protein through social media campaigns, a business incubation programme, conferences and tempeh-making workshops in Indonesia and abroad. The Indonesian Tempe Movement is undeniably succeeding. Its books are the definitive guides for foodie enthusiasts, eager to give this traditional food the dignity it deserves. Inspired by the movement, numerous young entrepreneurs have started tempeh businesses in recent years.
One in particular is 22-year-old Nisa Hanan of Microo Tempe. She was undertaking her first year at university when she attended the Indonesian Tempe Movement’s first International Conference in 2015, in her home town of Yogyakarta. Shortly afterwards, she decided to create her small company, which produces tempeh using both yellow and black soybeans, as well as tempeh chips. Nisa is also passionate about sharing her knowledge and periodically travels to Jakarta and Bali to teach hands-on tempeh classes.
Finding good tempeh outside Indonesia can be quite challenging, though entrepreneurs are stepping up to the task. For example, three years ago, Aldi and Rizka, a young Indonesian couple in Melbourne, Australia, founded Take & Eat to produce tasty legit tempeh, and their business is growing fast. Starting from a shed converted into a commercial kitchen, they now operate in a small factory that produces up to 5,500 tempeh blocks per week, which are sold in local farmers’ markets and supplied to groceries, cafés and restaurants. Their next goals are to create the superfood using various types of beans and to diversify their product range with delectable tempeh-based dishes and desserts.
Meanwhile, the transformation of tempeh and its soy cousin tofu into delicious Indonesian home-cooked specialities is the key to the success of Sojahaus Setia in Nuremberg, Germany. Unsatisfied with the quality of tofu and tempeh in the city, founder Setia Nugraha took matters into his own hands a year ago, opening a café selling tempeh along with his popular tahu Sumedang and tahu Bandung (West Javanese tofu delicacies), which are also available online. His customers particularly love to snack on mendoan – tempeh fried in batter.
The tempeh entrepreneur par excellence, though, is Rustono, who started to build Rusto’s Tempeh Factory literally with his own hands, piece by piece, in the winter of 1999 in Shiga, Japan. The admirable perseverance and resilience of the Indonesian go-getter are qualities to look up to. The challenges and refusals he faced at the early stages of his business only spurred him on to do more. Now, the incredible 30,000 pieces of tempeh he produces monthly are distributed not only in Japan but also in Korea, Canada, France, Austria, Portugal and Mexico – where he has opened a second factory to meet growing demand. Rustono is generously giving back to his native community by importing machinery from Indonesia and sharing his insights to inspire other tempeh artisans to aim higher, and by promoting Indonesian food heritage to the world, one flavoursome morsel after another.
What started as peasant food has truly now made its way to the global stage. In Indonesia, chefs like the award-winning Ragil Imam Wibowo of Nusa Indonesian Gastronomy in Jakarta, along with Ray Adriansyah and Eelke Plasmeijer of one of Asia’s best restaurants, Locavore in Ubud, Bali, regularly include tempeh on their fine-dining menus. They all share a common mission: to safeguard Indonesia’s rich culinary heritage and showcase the diverse, unique, indigenous produce the archipelago has to offer, through impeccably presented and innovative dishes.
Tempeh’s journey symbolises what a culture should always do, and not only in a culinary aspect: preserve its roots while continuously evolving towards its broader and greater future, without ever forgetting its origins.
From Colours May 2018
Theodora Hurustiati is a chef and food writer based in Italy. Born in Jakarta to a multicultural family, she embraced diversity from an early age, and uses her love of food from around the world as a way to bring cultures together – as she did with her former column, Taste Bud, for The Jakarta Post. Her proudest culinary achievement was when she cooked Indonesian nasi tumpeng at the United Nations office in Vienna, Austria.