Tucked away in the refrigerator case among all the tofu products and soy cheese, tempeh is easy to overlook. In fact, tempeh, a fermented soy product, often gets lumped in with tofu in people?s minds, though the two have little in common besides their soy origin and high protein content. Although tempeh is a culinary staple in Indonesia (where it originated), it remains relatively unknown in this country. But this versatile protein, as rich in flavor as it is in nutrients, is vastly deserving of closer attention from retailers and customers. For vegetarians and meat eaters alike, tempeh makes a great meat substitute in a wide variety of world cuisines.
Tempeh and tofu start out life similarly, since they?re both derived from the soybean. But from there, the two couldn?t be more different, according to Eric Sherman, tofu/tempeh brand manager at White Wave Inc. in Boulder, Colo. ?Tofu and tempeh are worlds apart,? he says. ?The completely different ways they?re used in recipes, tempeh?s chewy texture, the fact that tofu can be eaten raw and tempeh must be cooked—they?re completely different.?
From bean to tempeh
Sherman says that creating tempeh is an intricate, multistep process. ?We start with partially cooked soybeans, which we place in a large steam kettle and pressure-cook them,? he explains. ?We then place the steamed soybeans into a special bag that ?breathes,? and we inoculate it with Rhizopus oligosporous spores, which is a type of mold. Then it?s put into a room that has controlled temperature and humidity, and it takes up to two days for the spores to grow on the soybeans. Then it?s pasteurized, boxed and ready for sale.?
Mary Taylor, a Boulder-based chef and author of several vegetarian cookbooks, says that tempeh?s fermentation process is comparable to that of cheese. ?The way tempeh is grown from a mold is very much like blue cheese, which has a mold injected into it, and is a real delicacy,? Taylor says. She adds that as the tempeh ferments, it changes color. ?The tempeh color starts out very white and soft, but as it ferments the color of the mold changes into a darker brown color. When tempeh is in either the white or darker brown state, it?s safe to eat. But it?s very important for both retailers and customers to know that if it changes to any color besides white or brown, it?s no longer edible and has aged beyond a safe point.?
Beyond basic tempeh, which is created using plain, fermented soybeans, tempeh manufacturers have brewed up a variety of additional flavorings and added complementary ingredients to create unique tempeh offerings. Sherman says that White Wave offers four organic tempehs in its line. ?The difference in the various tempehs in the line are the different ingredients, such as the rice, the type of sea vegetables, and adding various grains, such as barley, whole grain, rice, split soybean, quinoa,? Sherman says.
Lightlife, another manufacturer of organic tempeh, offers five different kinds of tempeh. It also makes an imitation-bacon tempeh product.
Taylor says the main differences between the varieties of tempeh are flavor and texture. ?At one end of the spectrum is the plain soy, which has the least complex flavor and is the most dense in texture,? she explains. ?The varieties with more dense grains—like the brown rice or the five grain, along with the plain soy—are the three that, in my experience, hold together best for cooking when you want a larger piece of tempeh or a strip. If you?re making crumbled tempeh, lighter varieties like the sea vegetable or quinoa flavors are a great option.?
Taylor says the biggest obstacle customers face in learning to love tempeh is in not knowing the proper method for preparing it. ?If people have had tempeh and they didn?t like it, it may very well be because it wasn?t steamed first or marinated,? she says. ?Without doing that first, it can be very tough and underflavored.? She recommends steaming tempeh as a first step in cooking, for both culinary and digestive reasons. ?You just cut it up, steam it for three minutes, then marinate it,? Taylor says. ?[Steaming] tempers the flavor, and it plumps the tempeh so that it?s better able to absorb the marinade.?
Taylor says tempeh also can be used crumbled, which requires a slightly different preparation process. ?If you?re using tempeh as a crumbled ingredient, say in a chili, a skillet dinner or a sloppy joe, you can just simmer it in that liquid, without needing to steam it first.? Another option, she says, is to first marinade it without steaming it, then bake it. ?It becomes a wonderful topping, or it?s great in salads. Using it as a topping is a great way to acclimate people who aren?t familiar with tempeh to its taste and texture.?
Taylor recommends using tempeh as you would cubes or strips of meat or tofu. It even has some additional advantages over tofu. It can stand up to strongly flavored sauces such as barbecues or curries, whereas tofu is overwhelmed by such strong tastes. ?An easy thing to do with tempeh is also one of the ways people like it best?put it on skewers with barbecue or peanut sauce,? Taylor says. ?Both of those are reminiscent of its Indonesian roots.?
In order to heighten customer awareness of tempeh, Sherman recommends in-store demos and sampling. ?If you just look at raw tempeh, it may not look very appealing in the package,? Sherman says. ?So it?s great for retailers to sauté some up, or get people to try it in-store. By eating it they can appreciate its texture and flavor.?
Taylor says that because tempeh is so little-known, it offers retailers great potential for increased sales. ?I think one of the best ways to realize that growth potential is to have the person at the store who is either in charge of demos, or in charge of buying the tempeh, to take it home and learn how to cook with it, discover what kinds of recipes it works with,? she recommends. ?That way they ? can be genuinely enthused in recommending it to customers.?
Taylor says it?s also important to make sure the deli is always carrying a tempeh dish. She recommends tempeh-based mock egg salad, Indonesian tempeh skewers or tempeh chili. ?Then make sure to sample those dishes to customers, which helps both the deli and your own sales,? she says. ?And tempeh also offers lots of opportunities for holiday tie-ins. Around Christmas and [other winter] holidays, tempeh is a great ingredient for stuffings for squash and can also take the place of nuts for those who have nut allergies.
?Tempeh is a neglected food, and it?s just such a great source of protein and a great way to break out of your routines,? Taylor says. ?People so often get stuck in eating the same old vegetarian foods, and they forget about tempeh, or they don?t know how to cook with it. But if retailers tune into it, and get their customers enthusiastic about it, it has great potential for becoming a customer favorite.?
Lynn Ginsburg is the co-author of What Are You Hungry For? Women, Food and Spirituality (St. Martin?s Press, 2003). Check out her Web site: www.whatareyouhungryfor.net for more information.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 11/p. 32, 36