Finished tempeh ready for use

Making tempeh from scratch:  it’s one of those things that you have to be in just the right mood to do–because it takes a good chunk of time and effort!

A unique culinary contribution from Indonesia, tempeh is made with fermented soybeans.   Soybeans are, of course,  an important source of protein, particularly for vegetarians. It’s used in many different ways in Asia.  As bean curd or tofu, it exists in dozens, perhaps hundreds, of different varieties: milky, soft, hard, semi-hard, dried, shredded, “frying”, “soup” or “skin” type, flavored, plain.  Then there is TVP or textured vegetable protein, a so-called “meat analogue” which I’ve never really liked (nor for that matter, anything pseudo-meat).  Soybeans are also prepared by fermentation, through the use of various types of mold or fungi.  Tempeh falls in this category along with traditionally brewed soy sauce, miso, and the notorious “stinky” tofu that smells like hell to the uninitiated, and heaven to its acolytes. These days, while the jury is out on the benefits of soy, I tend to keep my consumption of soybeans to a minimum, though I must have my tempeh fix now and again.

I first tried tempeh in Indonesia, where it is a protein staple for many locals.  Unlike tofu which is rather bland, it has a strong nutty, earthy taste of its own, and is perhaps an acquired one, though once you have it, it tends to stick. Tempeh slices may be deep fried and eaten with various sauces and condiments or cut in small pieces and added to soups, stir-fries, salads and even sandwiches. It does well with marinades–the simplest and for me the best one is a light rub of salt, pepper and crushed garlic about 15-20 minutes before pan frying (I will write about this in my next post).

Once I returned to Manila I was on my own as far as tempeh went. It was nearly impossible to find, (I only once managed to locate a lady whose daughter had done some training with the USDA, of all things, and who was willing to prepare a batch on special order) and I had to make it myself if I wanted to enjoy it on a regular basis. I found a Dutch website called Tempeh Info that had a ton of information on it and took up their offer to send for a free starter packet of the Rhizopus mold that is responsible for the fermentation of tempeh.  I also managed to source about 5 kilos of good, non-GMO (that is, not genetically modified) soybeans. And I was on my way!

Once you have your starter and your soybeans, find a 2-3 day period in your schedule when you are feeling especially virtuous, energetic and most inspired to take up the fight against fast food 🙂  Because homemade tempeh is real slow food–right up there with making sourdough bread or putting up your own pickles or preserving fresh produce– and every bit as satisfying.

Homemade tempeh

600 g soybeans

2 Tbsp vinegar

2 g (or about 1/2 tsp) Rhizopus mold starter

1. Soak the soybeans in water for around 18 hours. Make sure you check the beans from time to time, and top up the water as needed–the soybeans will absorb the water and expand quickly.

L-R: Soybeans after soaking; Removing hulls from split soybeans

2. Throw out the soaking water and rinse the soybeans under running water.  By now the soybeans will have swollen to about twice their original size. Place the beans in a bowl, add some water, and remove the hulls and split the beans by rubbing handfuls of beans together and squeezing. It is best to do this in 3-4 batches. When most of the beans have been hulled, fill the bowl with water. The empty hulls will float to the surface. Tilt the bowl gently to one side to drain the water, scoop out hulls, and discard.

L-R: Split and hulled soybeans; Cooking the beans

3. Place the hulled and split soybeans in a large pot and add water to cover.

Little Rio watches over incubating packs of soybean

Add the vinegar and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Drain the soybeans. Return them to the pot and dry up the beans by mixing them constantly over low heat. Let the beans cool down to room temperature, or about 30-35 degrees Celsius.

4. Sprinkle the Rhizopus mold on the beans and mix very thoroughly.  Prepare 5 plastic bags 12 x 30 cm by punching holes into them with a very large needle at about 1 cm intervals. These holes will allow the mold to breath and thrive.  Spoon the soybeans into the plastic bags, spreading them out evenly on a flat surface.  Fold down the open end of each bag to seal.  Leave for about 36 hours at warm room temperature–about 28 to 30 degrees C.  At the end of this time, you will notice that the soybeans will have become solid cakes covered and held together with a white mycelia.  The tempeh is ready to use!


-You may store unused tempeh in the freezer.
-If you want thicker cakes, use less bags and pack the beans up to 3 cm in height.