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What is tempeh? What are its benefits?

Many people today know what is tempeh, thanks to a growing interest in health foods as well as in vegetarian / vegan diets.

It is probably the only traditional Indonesian food that is well known internationally. This is the only soy food that originated in Indonesia - probably Java - rather than in China or Japan and the Indonesians have been eating tempeh for over 2,000 years.

Discussions about the benefits of soy, as well as the dangers of soy, have also helped raise awareness about what is tempeh.

Because tempeh gets highlighted in both discussions. Tempeh is mentioned in discussions about the benefits of soy because it is a soy product and an excellent source of vegetarian protein.

At the same time, any discussion about the possible dangers of soy foods would inevitably cite tempeh as one of the fermented soy products that is NOT HARMFUL to health - unlike many modern soy foods like soy burgers, soy desserts, etc made from soy protein isolate.

In reality, tempeh holds a unique position in between regular and fermented soy foods. You will understand why if you know exactly what is tempeh, how it is made and how it is eaten.

So what is tempeh?

Tempeh is commonly described as a fermented soy food, yet it is quite different from other fermented soy foods like miso, soy sauce and natto.

The word "fermentation" usually refers to:

A broader definition of fermentation, however, includes any foods processed by the action of bacteria, yeast or molds, such as yeasted or leavened bread. Tempeh and natto fall under this category. So if you ask what is tempeh, a more accurate description might be that it is a "moldy" soy product. (Natto is produced by bacteria rather than molds.)

This may sound scary, but it is not. Many types of natural cheese also have molds, either on the surface, like Brie and Camembert, or inside, like Blue cheese, Stilton, Gorgonzola, etc. Just as cheese molds are healthy, so too is tempeh mold. The mold contains natural antibiotics and Indonesians who eat tempeh regularly are said to be resistant against common infectious diseases like dysentry.

What is tempeh like?

Tempeh that is "ripe" or matured is covered with white molds and there would be enough molds to hold the soybeans together as a single, firm "cake". Individual beans should not fall apart. The molds have a clean, almost "pure" appearance. The tempeh is dry and not slimy.

In spite of it being a moldy food, tempeh should have a nice, pleasant aroma. It should smell fresh - like the smell of fresh mushrooms - and not stale, definitely not smelly. A very light hint of ammonia is normal. The flavour is nutty.

When tempeh is "over-ripe" or has gone bad for other reasons (such as moisture or prolonged / improper storage) the molds turn black and there is an over-powering smell of ammonia. It may also be slimy.

You would not want to eat rotten tempeh even though it is probably still safe. Indonesians call it tempeh busuk or "smelly tempeh" and they sometimes use small amounts of it as a flavouring ingredient in cooking.

What is tempeh good for?

Tempeh is often praised as a source of good quality vegetable protein. While it may be somewhat costly in Western countries, tempeh is a very cheap source of protein in Southeast Asia, each serving costing a mere few cents. Being a fermented food, tempeh is "pre-digested" and much easier to digest compared to other protein foods like meat, beans or lentils. It also does not produce flatulence / gas the way beans and lentils do.

Part II of this article on What is tempeh? takes a more detailed look at the health benefits of tempeh as well as some precautions.

When considering what is tempeh, we should not forget that it is basically a soy bean product. While some of the problems associated with soy can be eliminated or minimised through fermentation, certain basic qualities of soy remain unchanged. These include:

So don't take too much tempeh. Other fermented soy foods like miso and soy sauce are very salty and can only be used in small amounts as a food seasoning. With natto, it is theoretically possible to eat a lot, but you will feel quite ill afterwards and that should tell you not to eat too much the next time.

Tempeh, however, can be eaten in fairly large portions without any immediate ill effects. You can, if you wish, eat a tempeh "burger" or "steak" just as someone else might eat a soy burger or a tofu steak. The Indonesians, who have been eating tempeh for 2,000 years, don't do this. They eat small portions. But over-enthusiastic vegetarians might go overboard with large portions of tempeh daily or several times a week. The ill effects will only start to show after many years.

So in summary, what is tempeh? It is a good food to be enjoyed once in a while, but not a totally healthy food to eat as much as possible.

Click here for a pasta recipe with tempeh and spinach.

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