What is Tempeh? Everything you need to know about Tempeh | Totally Vegan Buzz
Everything You Need To Know About Tempeh
Image: Wikimedia

Tempeh is a popular soy-based food often used as a meat replacement in vegan and vegetarian dishes. But what is tempeh? Is it healthy? How do you make it? Where does it come from? Totally Vegan Buzz brings you the definitive guide to tempeh.

Diced vegan tempeh blocks lying on wooden table
Tempeh is a high-protein meat alternative made from soy beans. Image: Wikimedia

What is tempeh?

Tempeh is a traditional soy based food commonly served as a high-protein alternative to meat. To make it, split soybeans are fermented under controlled conditions to form a cake. Some types of tempeh are made from wheat, other beans, a mixture of grains and beans, pulp of soy, or barley. It has a firm texture and a nutty flavour, and is popular with vegetarians and vegans.

What is the history of tempeh?

Tempeh originated on the island of Java in Indonesia. It is one of the few soy-based products to not have originated in Japan, China or Korea. The name tempeh is thought to be derived from ‘tumpi’, an old Javanese whitish food made from fried batter of rice flour. Other accounts suggest it comes from the term ‘tape’ or ‘tapai’, meaning fermentation. 

What does tempeh taste like?

Tempeh has a strong nutty texture with a earthy mushroom flavour. It easily absorbs sauces and spices, making it a versatile ingredient for chilli, stew, sandwiches, pasta, stir-fries and tacos.

Is tempeh the same as tofu?

No. Even though tempeh and tofu are both made from soy and are rich sources of protein, they are completely different . The process of making, the texture and the flavour are entirely different.

To make tempeh, soybeans are fermented and minimally processed. Tofu is made by coagulating soy milk and then pressing the curd to form blocks. Tempeh is firmer with a varied texture from whole soybeans, whereas tofu has a plain, solid, soft and sometimes rubbery texture. The tastes are completely distinct – tempeh is more nutty with a mushroom taste whereas tofu is bland with a subtle flavour.

Tempeh salad in a wooden bowl with chopsticks alongside other foods
Tempeh salad in a wooden bowl with chopsticks. Image: Pixabay

How does tempeh stack up nutritionally?

Tempeh is used as a meat substitute as it is packed with protein. It is also a source of copper, fibre, phosphorus, vitamin B2 and magnesium. According to Dr. Axe, ‘tempeh is known to reduce cholesterol, increase bone density, decrease menopausal symptoms and promote muscle recovery”. As tempeh is made through fermentation, it contains enzymes which make it easier for the body to process and absorb proteins and other nutrients.

Tempeh is considered a nutritional food for all age groups, and is popular for vegans and non-vegans. A recent report from Persistence Market Research (PMR) predicted the global tempeh market to be worth $5.8 billion by 2026, exceeding the current value of $3.6 billion.

Is tempeh good for you?

Tempeh has numerous health benefits:

  • A rich source of plant-based protein which helps vegetarians and vegans fulfil their protein requirements
  • Helps lower cholesterol and promotes better heart health. Studies suggest tempeh has soy isoflavones which help decrease cholesterol levels
  • Rich in probiotics which are good for the digestive system and boost immunity
  • Rich in calcium and copper, both of which are good for bone health

Can tempeh be bad for me?

Tempeh is made with soybeans, so if you are allergic to soy it is recommended not to consume tempeh. Try other vegan protein-rich foods such as seitan, which is made from wheat gluten. If you experience food allergy symptoms such as itching or swelling after consuming tempeh, stop eating it and consult a doctor.

Two white bowls full of soybeans on a wooden table with beans and leaves scattered alongside.
Two white bowls full of soybeans. Image: Freepik

If you are new to eating fermented foods, it is advised to start by limiting consumption to a few servings per week, and slowly increase intake if desired. Soybeans are considered to be a goitrogen, and may interfere with the functioning of the thyroid gland. Though studies reveal soy based products have minimal effects on the thyroid, it may be best to moderate consumption for some people.

Is tempeh gluten free?

While traditional tempeh is gluten-free, some varieties may not be. Some store bought tempeh contains a mix of grains in place of soybeans, which may not be gluten-free. It is best to be read labels carefully before buying tempeh, or to create a homemade version.

Where can I buy tempeh?

Tempeh is mostly available in health food stores as well as grocery stores in the refrigerated section, aside tofu and other meat alternatives. It usually comes in a variety of flavors and grain combinations. Well know tempeh brands include Tofurky, Noble Bean and Lightlife.

Smoky Maple Bacon Marinated Strips made from tempeh from tofurky
Smoky Maple Bacon Marinated Strips made from tempeh. Image: Tofurky

How to make tempeh?

To make, soybeans or other beans and grains are soaked overnight until they swell. The skin is then rubbed off and discarded once it floats to the surface of a bowl filled with water. After dehulling, the beans are split in half. They are then lightly pressed with a rolling pin. The beans are then boiled for about 20 minutes, drained and allowed to cool until they are lukewarm.

Tempeh is made by the process of controlled fermentation. The beans are inoculated with tempeh starter culture that contains Rhizopus mold spores (either Rhizopus oligosporus or Rhizopus oryzae). The mixture is then wrapped in banana leaves, a plastic bag or foil tray perforated with small holes to ensure air supply for fermentation. This is then left in a warm place where mycelium grows and binds the beans into a dense white cake. Tempeh is then ready after about 24 to 48 hours.

Making your own tempeh gives flexibility to customise by adding different grains and legumes.

What dishes can I make with tempeh?

Tempeh is versatile and can be used in main dishes such as chili, curry or risotto as well as snacks such as chips, burgers and sandwiches.

Vegan tempeh spinach spaghetti in a bowl with tempeh chips on the side.
Tempeh spinach spaghetti in a bowl with tempeh chips on the side. Image: Pixabay

What are your favourite tempeh dishes? Let us know in the comments section below!

Published by Anu Kondal

Anu Kondal is a digital writer at Totally Vegan Buzz. Anu specialises in informative articles about vegan food, drink and general plant-based knowledge. Anu is an accomplished researcher and educational writer and is an expert on vegan trivia.

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