Tempeh Is More Than a Versatile Superfood—It’s Also a Way of Life

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Whenever I lack inspiration in the kitchen, I reach for tempeh (“tempe” in Indonesian). This versatile fermented soybean cake is multi-dimensional; when deep-fried it transforms into moreish, crunchy, nutty-flavored bites of umami that even my toddler, on his fussiest of days, gobbles down.

But most of all, tempeh represents Indonesia for me, the place where my Dad was born, a taste of my heritage.

What is tempeh and where is it from?Tempeh (pronounced “tem-pay”) has been hailed as a superfood for some time, but for many people, the cultured soy-based protein remains largely unfamiliar. In Indonesia, where tempeh originated, however, it’s widely used across the full culinary landscape, a celebrated staple that is part of the everyday diet.

Tempeh can be traced back 400 years (and possibly more than 1000 years!) to the island of Java, where it holds great cultural significance. Considered “the pride of Indonesia”, according to culinary expert William Wongso, tempeh is an accessible and cheap source of protein for Indonesians in a country where meat is not eaten daily due to its expense and is typically reserved for ceremonious occasions or restaurant meals. In its place, Indonesians consume seven kilograms of tempeh per person annually, served day-to-day with a combination of tofu, vegetables, rice, sambal, and seafood.

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