BY ELIZABETH FIEND LIVING EDITOR Tempeh (pronounced TEM pay) is a ‘cake’ of halved soybeans bonded together with mold. Mold you say? Yes, mold — sweet, delicious mold. Tempeh is totally different than tofu. I mean, like totally different — in taste, texture, manufacturing process, even having different nutritional attributes. Some people call tempeh the ‘dark meat’ to tofu’s light. Tempeh could be the original veggie burger with its firm, nougat-like texture, nutty, mushroom, yeasty, bean flavor. It really is nothing at all like tofu – except they’re both made of soybeans and I love them both. Most soy foods originated in Japan and China. But not tempeh. This is an Indonesia invention, perfected by the Javanese.
If this mold thing sounds kind of creepy substitute the word fermentation for mold. The traditional Indonesian mold is Rhizopus spores. The mold as it grows acts as a binder to the soybeans, thus forming a compact, dense cake of cracked soybeans and mold, with little else – this simplicity, lack of additional ingredients is what makes tempeh so special. Unlike tofu, which is actually heavily processed, tempeh is very close to being a whole food. And you know the mantra, whole foods are the best for you.
Indonesia was the place to stumble upon this wonderful food. It has the perfect climate to incubate the cooked soybeans which were wrapped in hibiscus leaves to create the original tempeh. What about the mold? Hibiscus leaves naturally contain the Rhizopus spore. A match made in heaven. Culinary heaven that is.
This business of wrapping the soybean in leaves proved to be a tricky process and delayed the spread of tempeh to other parts of the world. The Indonesian climate proved to be just as big a part of the process as the mold and soybeans. Try the method else where, uh oh. Other poisonous maybe even deadly molds grew.
It took a while but finally tempeh found an ally in America, the hippy commune The Farm, out of Summertown, TN. Their interest in the food slowly caught on and in the 1970s articles started appearing in the mainstream press espousing tempeh’s virtues. By the ’80s articles began appearing in scientific journals testifying and giving scientific backing to tempeh’s unique nutritional values.
Nutrition wise tempeh is a powerhouse but it’s the taste and versatility that will endear you to this unique plant based food. But still, let’s just review what you’ll get when you bite into a meal made with tempeh.
Tempeh is a great source of magnesium, my personal favorite mineral. Who knew you could have a favorite mineral – but I do. Magnesium is a blood vessel and nerve relaxant – the mineral-world’s valium. Now you know why it’s my favorite! Not that I’m stressed out, or worked-up, or anything like that, but consuming the correct amount of magnesium actually does relax you and aid in a restful night’s sleep. A serving of tempeh, which is 4oz., about ½ cup, provides 21% of your daily value (DV) of magnesium (DV is the new RDA – recommended daily allowance. In case you’re not keeping up on these things, RDA is out DV is in.).
You’ll also get 72% of the DV of manganese and 30% of your copper. Not just minerals, there are vitamins in tempeh too. B2 in the form of riboflavin is an important factor in the liver’s detoxification process.
There are also bio-active compounds in tempeh such as the phytonutrient (plant based health-protecting compounds) isoflavones (only found in soy) and soy saponins (anti-carcinogens). Isoflavins and saponins are important to women’s health, especially as we age. They help ease the symptoms of menopause, strengthen bones and reduce the risk of heart disease. You know that estrogen protects your heart, but estrogen production decreases after menopause, right? (Remember this, it’s important. More American women die from heart disease than from anything else.) Soy contains a plant based estrogen. Add soy to your diet, ok?
But this is no ladies food. Real men will benefit from eating tempeh too. In areas of the world where tempeh is a staple food low rates of colon cancer and prostate cancer abound.
The fermentation process in the making of tempeh produces natural antibiotic agents. And unlike many fermented products, tempeh is made without any added salt. We’re not talking low sodium, we’re talking NO sodium. This is a wonderful bonus to those following a heart healthy, low sodium diet like the DASH Diet.
Because tempeh is so un-processed it maintains all the fiber of the bean, but the fermentation process provides enzymes that naturally make the beans more digestible (ie: no gas!). But there’s more. The fiber in tempeh actually binds to fat and cholesterol from other foods pushing them out of your body before they can do any harm.
Soy protein is equal to that found in egg, milk and meat but comes with out the added nuisance of cholesterol. 4oz of tempeh will provide a whopping 41% of the DV for protein with only 14% of your fat. Did I tell you, a serving of tempeh is only about 160 calories?
The possibilities for tempeh are basically limitless both in recipe and cooking method (find recipe suggestions at end of article). You can slice or dice tempeh; it can be grated or mashed; or just left in larger pieces more like a patty. Tempeh can be baked on a greased pan in the oven. Sprinkle on herbs, seasoning or soy sauce before baking. Try frying or broiling it. Tempeh is a star at the summer BBQ. Because it’s so firm it’s fabo for the grill. You can simmer, boil, poach or steam tempeh too. Some people originally find tempeh to have a strong or bitter flavor. Pre-steaming can reduce this (and then bake, broil, fry, grill). Steaming in orange juice for Asian fare, and tomato juice for Italian/American dishes is a nice touch. But I don’t do the pre-steaming thing anymore, it took a few tries but my family now loves tempeh’s flavor. Of course there’s the microwave. Although I’ve never done this.
Purchase tempeh in the refrigerated section of the health food or Asian store. Sometimes other grains or vegetables are also incorporated into tempeh, slightly different flavors, slightly different textures. Experiment, try them all. Tempeh should last for a few weeks in its original package in the fridge. Some brown spots are ok. Check the expiration date.
My Super, Chunky, Meaty Vegan Tomato Sauce is a great intro to tempeh. The tempeh is crumbled and in a sauce so it’s not in-your-face. Maybe a good way to convert the family to the wonders of this food? I mean its spaghetti, what could go wrong?
Last fall the Philadelphia Inquirer published my recipe (below) followed by their own nutritional analysis. I was excited to see a professional nutritional analysis of one of my recipes, too bad the analysis was totally wrong. (They didn’t count the calories from the pasta and said the sauce had cholesterol – totally impossible for a plant based recipe!) When I pointed out the error of their ways, they refused to print a correction. Humph, so much for accuracy in mainstream journalism.
SUPER CHUNKY, MEATY vegan TOMATO SAUCE Served Over Pasta
by Elizabeth Fiend
Time: 50 minutes, Serves 6
Chocolate in spaghetti sauce? Yes, coco and cinnamon add a smoky denseness to tomato based sauces that make meatless meals seem meatier. Feel free to make your tomato sauce from scratch. But I don’t have time to chop and cook all the tomatoes so I’ve devised a way to make bottled sauce — or ‘gravy’ as they say in the old school Italian neighborhood near my house — taste just as delicious. This sauce is well seasoned, chunky with vegetables and chewy from tempeh, which takes the place of chopped meat, all adding up to an extremely nutritious meal that everyone will love.
For weight management fill up by eating two portions of the sauce BUT only ONE serving of pasta. Leftovers store well (if you’re lucky enough to have any).
16 oz jar tomato sauce
8 oz can diced tomatoes
8 oz tempeh
1/4 cup red wine
16 oz whole wheat linguine
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large green pepper, diced
1 large red pepper, diced
1 medium onion, diced
8 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon dried sage
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons unsweetened coco powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Set a steamer in a medium sauce pan filled with 1 inch water
Break the tempeh into 3 or 4 pieces
Add tempeh to the steamer and steam for 25 minutes, turning once
After cool enough to handle, grate tempeh with a cheese grater
After tempeh has steamed, put up a pot of water for the pasta and add the spaghetti when it boils, cook as usual
In a large sauce-pan sauté the garlic and sage in olive oil
Add onion and the peppers, sauté for 5 minutes
Add diced tomatoes
Cook until all are tender (adding water as need, not more oil)
Pour in the tomato sauce
Add oregano, cayenne pepper, coco and cinnamon
Add grated tempeh
Thin with water to desired consistency if too thick
Continue cooking at a low/medium heat until pasta is ready.
Drain spaghetti, top with sauce.
Other Tempeh Recipe Suggestions by Elizabeth Fiend:
Sweet and Sour Tempeh: An awesome use of baked, cubed tempeh. I use cauliflower, red and green bell peppers, onion, pineapple (both chunks and also crushed which sweetens the sauce). Season with soy, ginger, garlic.
Mock Chicken Salad: Steam tempeh for 20 minutes, cool, crumble. Use your regular chicken salad recipe.
Stuffed Peppers: Steam tempeh in some tomato juice, crumble, mash. Mix in some cooked celery and onions, add tomato juice to moisten, season to taste. Stuff peppers, bake. Top with cheese if desired.
The Tempeh Ruben: This is the classic American use of tempeh. Make like a Ruben, but use broiled, fried, or baked tempeh instead of meat (duh).
BBQ Tempeh / Tempeh Ribs: Cut tempeh into strips, steam 20 min. in a thinned BBQ sauce. Then grill, or bake in oven until browned. Coat heavily with a thick BBQ sauce. Get out the napkins!!! (Make extra.)
Tempeh Snax: Cut tempeh into cubes, steam 20 min. Marinate for a few hours in soy sauce, sugar, ginger and garlic. Right before cooking – dredge tempeh in nutritional yeast (if you don’t have that how about some corn meal or ok, if you must, use white flour). Fry in small amount of sesame oil. Eat hot or cold.
Tempeh Bacon: Another tempeh American classic. Similar to Tempeh Snax but cut into thin strips. Use tamari and honey instead of sugar and soy sauce, add some smoke flavor.
Sloppy Joes: Crumble tempeh, steam for 20 min. Use regular Sloppy Joe recipe.
Sources and For More Information:
ABOUT THIS COLUMN: At no time in recorded history have we possessed so much knowledge about health and nutrition, or had such vast and effective means for disseminating that knowledge. Yet for all that, we essentially live in a high-tech Dark Age, with most of the global population ignorant or confused about the basic facts of their own biology. How did this happen? Well, that alone is a whole six-part miniseries, and this ain’t the Discovery Channel. Suffice to say that the bottom line of many a multi-national corporation depends on that ignorance, and vast sums of money are expended to keep us fat, dumb and happy. But mostly fat. There was a time when newspapers saw it as their duty to truth squad the debates over health, science and the environment, but that’s a luxury most papers can no longer afford — not when there are gossip columnists to be hired! To help remedy this violation of the public’s right to know, Phawker publishes the JUNK SCIENCE column by Elizabeth Fiend, beloved host of the BiG TeA PaRtY. Every week, Miss Fiend connects the dots to reveal a constellation of scientific facts that have been hiding in plain sight, scattered across the cold, vast reaches of the Internet. With a background in punk rock and underground comics, and a long career as a library researcher, Miss Fiend doesn’t pretend to be a scientist or an expert. She does, however, know how scientific facts become diluted by corporate-sponsored non-facts, and every week she separates the smoke from the mirrors. Why? Because she loves you.