Forty-two years ago, when Seth Tibbott was 26, he visited a hippie commune in Tennessee called The Farm. A vegetarian since reading Frances Moore Lappé’s "Diet for a Small Planet" in 1971, he had been subsisting on vegetables and homemade “soy grit” burgers.
“They tasted bad and they digested worse,” Tibbott recalls. But while browsing the literature at The Farm, he learned about a fermented soybean product called tempeh. “So when I read that tempeh was this really digestible and fairly easy-to-make-thing, I was really intrigued.” At the time, he was working for the Youth Conservation Corps at Kinser Park. So he ordered some tempeh starter from The Farm and, a week later, he set about making his first batch.
“I got some soybeans and hand-hulled them, put the magic starter on them, put them out in the field.” For tempeh to ferment properly, you ideally need temperatures of 88 degrees, and Tennessee’s hot weather was perfect. “The next day, there was this beautiful white cake on the soybeans,” he recalls. Tibbot later learned that when he brought his first tempeh back to his co-workers, they thought it might poison them. But they tried it anyway, and several went on to become early customers of his first commercial tempeh.
Seth Tibbott in front of his first tempeh incubator, in 1980. (Photo courtesy of Seth Tibbott)
In 1980, in Oregon, Tibbot launched Turtle Island Soy Dairy, the company now known as Tofurky. But what few people know is that Tofurky — famous for its alternative holiday roast — began with this lesser-known soy product. Fermented with Rhizopus mold, tempeh is originally from Indonesia, and it can be made with any beans, seeds, or even noodles. For the first 15 years, the company barely broke even. Today, Tofurky has estimated sales of $40 million a year, and Tibbott says tempeh is one of the company’s fastest-growing product lines, increasing 17 percent from 2017 to 2018.
Some of Squirrel and Crow’s tempeh varieties.
Tibbott was 40 years ahead of the curve. With the popularity of plant-based burgers and fermented foods on the rise, tempeh is having a moment. It has a nutty flavor, a meaty texture, and it fries up nicely for stir-fry, tacos, or in place of a burger. Unlike the Impossible Burger (which relies on GMO soy, and, as a result, the use of glyphosate) and other ultra-processed plant-based meat substitutes, tempeh has only two ingredients: beans and culture. It’s also a nutritional powerhouse, containing almost as much protein as beef (without the saturated fat or cholesterol), all eight essential amino acids, calcium, iron, and zinc.
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Though tempeh sales are still a fraction of all plant-based protein sales, there are dozens of new artisanal tempeh companies sprouting up around the country — from Squirrel and Crow in Portland, Oregon and Tempeh Tantrum in Minneapolis to Barry’s Tempeh in Brooklyn. And it’s not just popular at food co-ops — it’s on the menu at pizza franchise Mellow Mushroom’s 150 locations across the Southeast, Native Foods’ nine restaurants, and at high-end restaurants like Cafe Sunflower in Atlanta and Farm Spirit in Portland. You can even get a tempeh bowl at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. “Tempeh is like the OG fermented food,” Tibbott says.
Tempeh even has its own organization, the Indonesian Tempe Movement (without the “h” on the end), dedicated to increasing international awareness of tempeh and teaching everyone from hipsters to the incarcerated how to make it. Last winter, two food entrepreneurs in Portland, Oregon, Mike Hillis and Willie Chambers, formed a U.S. offshoot called the Tempeh Movement. They see themselves as ambassadors, spreading the good news of this often under-appreciated food.
Tempeh’s most tireless champion may be 27-year-old Amadeus Driando (“Ando”) Ahnan, the co-founder, with his mother and grandfather, of the Indonesian Tempe Movement. Ahnan, who grew up in Jakarta and now lives in western Massachusetts, jokes that he was weaned on tempeh. But his real conversion came later, when he was seeking a protein source that would help him bulk up for weightlifting as an adult. He realized that the food he had grown up eating every day left him feeling less bloated than beef. “I thought, ‘This is amazing! How could something that cheap have the same quantity of protein as beef?’” says Ahnan.
Around the same time, his mom, Wida Winarno, had taken a fermented foods class wherein she learned about the importance of tempeh in promoting gut health, and his grandfather, the respected Indonesian food scientist, F.G. Winarno, returned from a colleague’s seminar on the health benefits of tempeh. The serendipity was too much to ignore.
“I thought, ‘We should make an international conference on tempeh,’” recalls Ahnan. In 2015, the trio founded the Tempe Movement, starting with an online campaign. In Indonesia, as in other developing countries, eating meat is a sign of status and wealth. Vegetarian food, Ahnan says, is often seen as a sign of poverty. He and his family wanted to flip the script. “We made cartoons and videos saying ‘Hey, don’t be ashamed if you like tempeh!’” says Ahan.
Today, Ahnan is getting his Ph.D. in food science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (focusing is on tempeh’s potential anti-cancer properties.) In his spare time, he’s designed the prototype for a machine called Tempeasy, which allows people to make tempeh at home as easily as they make bread or yogurt. He’s also the co-founder of Better Nature Foods. The company will launch in the United Kingdom in January with six products, including tempeh rashers (i.e., bacon), tempeh mince, and smoked soy tempeh.
Last March, Ahnan organized an “eco-tempeh tour” across the island of Java for entrepreneurs from the U.S. and England, including Tibbott, Hillis, and Chambers.
Hillis discovered tempeh at a Grateful Dead concert in 1988 and then again through his wife, Priska, who is Indonesian. (At their wedding in Bali, his wife’s great-grandmother from Java watched him scarf down fried strips of tempeh and said to Priska, “You’re in good hands. He’ll eat your cooking!”) A few years ago, he introduced tempeh to Chambers, a former butcher who now works as a chef at the Sunrise Community Center in Portland’s Rockwood neighborhood.
On the tempeh tour of Indonesia. (Photo courtesy of Better Nature Foods)
The fact that Tempeh is fermented won Chambers over, he says. He thinks tempeh is where kombucha was 10 years ago — on the cusp of ubiquity. “Now you can buy kombucha in gas stations!” he says.
The trip to Java allowed Hillis and Chambers to learn traditional tempeh-making practices from Indonesian women who have been doing it their whole lives. This fall, they hosted a tempeh event at Wajan, a new Indonesian restaurant in Portland where Tibbott spoke and guests got to sample several tempeh dishes.
The pair have big plans for the future, including community tempeh-making classes and work to get tempeh into institutional settings such as prisons and hospitals. “We want to introduce it to a much wider demographic,” says Hillis. They believe tempeh has the potential to bridge the urban-rural divide. “How many soybean farmers live 50 miles away from economically distressed urban centers where people don’t have enough food to eat? Tempeh can be a very powerful diplomatic tool,” he says.
Traditional tempe-makers in Indonesia. (Photo courtesy of Better Nature Foods)
To get there, though, tempeh has a number of obstacles to surmount—most notably an unfair reputation as a strange dish for hippies, but also, Tibbott thinks, a lack of value-added products on the market. (Mike Hillis is working on a savory tempeh snack called Tempeh Manis that tastes a bit like Chex Mix.) But the main key to the food’s ascendence may be the startling difference between fresh and pasteurized tempeh.
In Indonesia, where every small town has a tempeh-maker, tempeh is still fermented in banana leaves. It’s also rarely pasteurized. “Even in the big grocery stores, most of the tempeh they make is in banana leaves,” says Tibbott.
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All the major tempeh brands in the U.S. — Surata, Tofurky, and LightLife — pasteurize their tempeh to give it a longer shelf life. Fresh tempeh will keep fermenting at room temperature — and even in the fridge. Most of the smaller tempeh startups in the U.S. are selling unpasteurized tempeh.
John Westdahl, co-founder of Squirrel and Crow in Portland, makes a variety of fresh tempeh products: chickpeas with quinoa, black bean with sunflower seeds, even one version with nixtamalized corn, pumpkin seeds, and beans. He doesn’t make a soy tempeh mostly because there are already two large companies in Oregon that do it well. “It was more or less a business decision to stand out,” he says.
This choice worked well for the many health-conscious Portlanders who are trying to limit their soy intake because of its estrogen-mimicking effects or because it’s a common allergen. Despite rumors, dietary soy has not been linked with an increased risk of any cancer.
Fresh tempeh, Westdahl says, “just tastes better. When it’s pasteurized, you don’t taste the fungus in it—which is quite nice and complex.”
Squirrel and Crow’s glazed tempeh.
Ahnan agrees, saying there’s also a texture change. “When it’s pasteurized, it loses its fluffiness,” he says. It’s best to eat fresh tempeh within three days — unless you’re curious to try the “overripe” version, known as tempe bosok, a delicacy in Indonesia. “Over-fermented tempeh produces a lot of umami compounds,” says Ahnan. He likes it in a coconut-based curry called sambal tumpang.
Despite tempeh’s new-found popularity, home cooks are still a bit clueless when it comes to preparing it, says Westdahl. At the farmers’ markets where he’s a vendor, he offers tips. “I try to read them to find out what their skill-set is. It can be put into any recipe — it’s almost too versatile,” he says. “So I ask, ‘Are you a burger person? Do you like stir-fry?’” His favorite way to prepare it is a traditional Indonesian dish called orek, which is a sticky, glazed deep-fried dish heavy on ginger and garlic. “It’s like heaven on earth,” he says.
Many eaters are just starting to experiment with tempeh. But Westdahl, Ahnan, Tibbott and many other evangelists believe that once they try it — whether at a high-end restaurant or in their own kitchens — they’ll be converts.