Just What Is Tempeh? And What Makes Tempeh So Special?

This picture of a special dish introduces the article about what makes tempeh special.
What is tempeh? For one, it's versatile enough to fit right into this Moroccan Kebab recipe! (Photo 76709060 | Food © Iprintezis | Dreamstime.com)
A question we here at Henry’s Tempeh often get is “What is tempeh?” It’s a fantastic question and one that I had myself, before starting to work here and even for a few months after making the stuff on a regular basis. Tempeh is a fermented, plant-based bean cake that originated in Indonesia. If you’re interested in learning about the Indonesian origins and history of tempeh check out this informative blog post from Cook me Indonesian.

But What IS Tempeh?

In the case of tempeh, fermentation refers to how the mold culture rhizopus oligosporus gets pressed onto cooked and cooled soybeans and then binds those beans together while feeding on them. As Elizabeth Gulick notes in this Evergreen State College blog post, the rhizopus oligosporus uses its many mycelium (hair-like filaments) to feed on just the first few cellular layers of the beans and breaks down the elements of the soybeans we have a hard time digesting. She also notes that this process unlocks more of the soybeans’ nutrients, and helps to synthesize things like B vitamins, which are then consumed when tempeh is eaten, mycelia and all. And, to top all of that off, as the rhizopus oligosporus grows it binds everything together into the bean cake you find on the grocery store shelf.

And, since there are no animal products in tempeh, it is considered plant-based.


Also important to note: Our tempeh is pasteurized as part of the production process. This means that we cook it so that it reaches an internal temperature of over 75°C for at least one minute to stop the process of fermentation and to increase our tempeh’s shelf life.

But How Can You Cook Tempeh?

Tempeh has a mild savoury taste that can be described as mushroomy or earthy. If you simmer or steam it, it can absorb sauces and marinades exceedingly well. Plus, as America’s Test Kitchen points out, tempeh keeps its shape after it has been cooked (unlike tofu).


According to The Book of Tempeh, Indonesians traditionally simmer tempeh in a mixture of coconut milk and spices or dredge it through a mixture of coconut milk, rice flour, and spices before frying, among other preparations. Bob’s Red Mill also notes that a simple traditional way to cook tempeh is to shallow or deep fry slices with garlic and coriander. 


In North America tempeh was first cooked in a very similar way. But experimentation has been widespread since the 70s. From the tempeh cacciatore that William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi brought to their tempeh demonstrations in the 70s, to deli sandwiches, to lasagna, to burgers, tempeh has been used to replace meat in a wide variety of North American dishes. 


For more recipe ideas, check out our website’s recipe section.

So What Makes Tempeh So Special?

As Shurtleff put it in The Book of Tempeh, “tempeh is a whole food from which we derive the benefits of that unanalyzable essence of wholeness.” Though this might sound a little intense, Shurtleff wasn’t just making a big deal out of something he wrote a book about. Tempeh is an example of wholeness in many different ways. 


For starters, the proteins that our bodies need are made up of amino acids. In total there are 20 different amino acids that combine to make these proteins. However, our body can only make 11 of these amino acids, while getting the other nine from the foods that we eat. Other plant-based foods like nuts and seeds or legumes only provide some of these amino acids. But tempeh offers all of them (just like meat)! Plus, according to the Dietitians of Canada, the soybeans used to make tempeh support whole body health by potentially reducing cholesterol, blood pressure and can improve vascular function. On top of those benefits, regularly eating soy can reduce some uncomfortable symptoms of menopause! Tempeh is also a great source of fibre, iron, and many micronutrients all of which contribute to our health in a positive way. 


Looked at historically, tempeh once again shows wholeness at work. After all, tempeh is the result of humanity’s favourite low-tech food-improving process: fermentation. From cheeses, to pickled vegetables, to bread, fermentation has been a steadfast way to preserve food without the need for refrigeration. The process also unlocks more nutrients (and flavours!). In tempeh’s case, it’s all thanks to the edible fungus found on the sea hibiscus leaves that Indonesians wrapped around their soybeans. Even the use of soybeans in this technique (thought to originally be done with coconut) shows the wholeness of humanity since soybeans were introduced to Indonesia through trade with other peoples.


Even if you step back from the nutrition- and historical-based looks at wholeness, tempeh’s relationship with the fungi kingdom connects it with wholeness. Ben Baldi writing for Fungi Ally notes that fungi are famous for removing harmful elements from ecosystems and cycling around the good. Fungi famously attach themselves to plant roots and can connect hundreds of plants together in this way. The connected fungi even help those plants communicate and manage nutrient sharing between them. This includes routing nutrients from old and dying trees to new saplings that could use a boost. 


Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch to attribute so much wholeness to tempeh just because it’s another nutritionally dense fermented food with origins in human connections and a relationship with the world-interweaving fungi kingdom. But, however you slice it, tempeh has a whole lot to offer.