Food Trends: A Brief History of Tempeh in North America

A conceptualization of the history of tempeh in North America in a single image.
From a taste of home, to a scientific curiosity, to a hippie staple, tempeh has a fascinating history in North America. (Photo 201012584 © Liudmyla Nikitiuk |

Tempeh history in North America reaches back to about the 1960s. However, tempeh’s history here is definitely dense, as anyone who has read or even skimmed the works of Shurtleff and Aoyagi over at the Soy Info Center can see. Luckily, the history of tempeh follows certain food trends that are visible decade by decade.

The 1960s: Scientific Interest

According to Shurtleff and Aoyagi’s The Book of Tempeh, tempeh first came into North Americans’ view in the late 1960s with the arrival of two Indonesian scientists Yap Bwee Hwa and Ko Swan Djien. Yap Bwee Hwa joined Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship in 1958. And in 1960 Ko Swan Djien joined the USDA Northern Regional Research Center at Peoria, Illinois. 


Within their respective institutions these two acted as catalysts for interest in and research on tempeh and the process of making it. In particular, Yap and the Cornell group dove deep into the food’s nutrition content. They also were the first to identify Rhizopus Oligosporous, which would become the most widely used starter culture in North America. 


Meanwhile, Ko’s work in Peoria helped to introduce the food to the West while boosting its image back in Indonesia. In a 1964 paper Ko famously compared Indonesia’s tempeh to France’s wine or the Dutch’s cheese. This comparison helped the Indonesian people take pride in what had been seen as merely a peasant food for centuries. 


Considering that the 60s saw at least 34 articles published in scientific journals, it was clearly the decade of scientific interest in the food. After all, the commercial side of this part of tempeh’s North American history was still small. Only a few small companies were making tempeh in California at this time, and Indonesian-Americans ran all of them to mostly provide for fellow Indonesian-Americans.

The 1970s: Counter-Cultures and Companies

But the history of tempeh took a radical turn in the 1970s. In this decade the hippy and back-to-the-land counter-cultures adopted tempeh. And why not? Eating and making the fermented soyfood fit in perfectly with these groups’ desire to follow ideas like the Buddhist principle of right livelihood (earning a living without harming others or oneself). 


Above all other causes for tempeh’s rise as a food trend, though, is Stephen Gaskin’s founding The Farm community in Summertown, Tennessee. For it was there that Alexander Lyon started his serious research into tempeh in 1972 and started to make it in small batches, batches which the all-vegan members of The Farm devoured since it was the best meatless meat they had ever had. 


Cynthia Bates, another member of The Farm, soon started work on making tempeh starter. By 1976 she was distributing what she made. And her starter was a hit! For several decades afterwards, she was a major starter supplier for many North American tempeh companies and interested individuals. But she wasn’t the only one getting people started on tempeh. Around the same time (the mid to late 70s) the Peoria, Illinois research group sent out free starter cultures and instructions to 35,000 interested people.


The 1970s were also the decade in which Farm Foods (from, you guessed it, The Farm) and several other North American businesses started making and selling their own tempeh. Though by 1979 the US only had 13 of these and Canada had only one, and all of them were either home businesses or run in tandem with another soy- or alternative-food concern. Unfortunately, Canada’s only commercial tempeh maker at this time, Rober Walker of Port Perry, Ontario, had to close his business and sell his equipment due to health concerns in 1978. However, this meant that Allan and Susan Brown were to buy his gear. In 1979 they took it to the heart of Toronto’s Chinatown and started Noble Bean.

The 1980s: Steady Tempeh Growth

Come the 1980s, the tempeh industry settled into a steadier growth both in terms of new makers emerging and new products being developed. In particular, 1982 saw the introduction of the first North American tempeh burger and deli-style vegan and vegetarian shops started offering more spins on the fermented soy food. As a result, by 1985 there were five tempeh manufacturers operating in Canada and 53 in the United States. This included Betsy’s Tempeh, home to this day of easy to follow tempeh-making instructions and experiments. There was also a great deal of media coverage on tempeh going into the 80s and through to the middle of the decade, including feature articles in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and Sunset Magazine.

The 1990s to Today: The Ongoing Soy Debate

Into the 1990s vegans and vegetarians continued to enjoy tempeh. And, just as some of its earliest North American researchers suggested, it was often proposed as a means of boosting peoples’ nutrition and income in developing nations. 

With the advent of the internet at the end of the decade and into the twenty-first century, tempeh history took another turn. More information about tempeh and soy in general was shared and spread. But this led to a split in the larger discussion around soy products. Scientific sources suggested that eating soy was perfectly healthy while smaller web sources suggested that it could be okay but with several severe catches. Into this environment sprang companies like Henry’s Tempeh in the year 2000, leaping onto the scene with their SoyKasha tempeh before branching out to the flavours seen on shelves today. 


Ultimately, among food trends, tempeh never took off as much as its big brother soyfood, tofu. Though it continues to be popular among vegetarians and vegans in North America. But for everyone else it is a hidden gem of flavour and versatility that only the curious and adventurous come to know and enjoy.