The ingredients we find on the vegetarian and vegan food shelves of supermarket may appear to be recent solutions studied for those who have decided to give up eating meat. If we delve deeper, however, we discover that foodstuffs such as seitan, tofu and tempeh have a time-honored tradition and they tell a tale of distant lands and Asian customs that have also influenced our everyday eating habits.
WHAT IS TEMPEH?
Possibly less famous than tofu, tempeh is an equally versatile and tasty ingredient, rich in vegetable proteins and vitamins, with an assertive and characteristic flavour midway between nuts and mushrooms, which is perfect for preparing stews, pan-tossed dishes and meatless rissoles, but also excellent when fried, served in a piquant sauce or used to fill fresh ravioli. The fermentation process of cooked soybeans, thanks to the properties of the rhizopus oligosporus fungus which binds the beans together to create a sort of edible cake, ready to be marinated with spices and herbs before being used in a number of different recipes.
Home-production enthusiasts may make their own by using a “tempeh starter”, a specific ingredient which is easy to find online and used to activate fermentation. The tempeh can be further enhanced by soaked sunflower seeds, sesame seeds or wholegrain rice. And if you are intolerant to soya, you may prepare it from peanuts alone; in any case you will certainly need a domestic incubator to ferment your tempeh!
HISTORY OF TEMPEH
Now that you know what is tempeh, it's time to find out more about its history. The Serat Centhini, a compilation of Javanese stories and teachings, recounts that this foodstuff was already a popular dish in Indonesia as far back as the 16th century and describes it as “the oldest food technology in the history of the Javanese people”, in just the same way as tofu in Japan, introduced by Chinese culture, which contemplated the preparation of a similar recipe going under the name of soybean koji. Since then, the first document on the subject dates back to 1946 when the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, considering it to be an ingredient of valid nutritional properties and therefore of interest to the US market, included it among the “possible sources of proteins for child feeding in underdeveloped countries”.
HOW TO USE TEMPEH
Taken on its own, fresh tempeh neither looks nor tastes particularly appetizing but used in the right recipe, it can turn out to be a very tasty ingredient with an amazing texture. A typical example? Split pea soup with tempeh bacon and chipotle cream, one of the most popular recipes from a book by the acclaimed vegan chef Tal Ronnen, author of the bestselling book The conscious cook, who has even managed to seduce Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres with the dishes he serves up at the Crossroads Kitchen in Los Angeles!
Those wishing to put it to the test in the kitchen with a simple recipe can try tossing it in a pan with a tiny amount of olive oil, together with a stir-fry of leeks, carrots, pineapple and green pepper, to be dressed before serving with a spicy bitter-sweet sauce of oriental inspiration. But even those who can’t be bothered with gourmet recipes, can quickly rustle up a tasty aperitif snack for sharing with friends by frying thin slices of tempeh in boiling oil to make crisps. These can then be seasoned with a mix of coarse salt, paprika and freshly ground coriander seeds.
To learn the basics of producing this century-old ingredient at home, to construct your own fermentation incubator or to discover lots of inspiring recipes the website address is quite simple: tempeh.info
Staff shortages are hitting the hospitality sector hard, prompting some restaurants to look outside the industry to train those without restaurant experience for life in the kitchen. Andrew Friedman finds out more.