Learning to Love Tempeh

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Photo by Jarrett Wrisley


This word once conjured up beige visions of heath food stores, with that medicinal smell of wellness. It also sparked bad food memories. Like a Christmas dinner I once spent in Sichuan, that was prepared by two very generous vegan friends. We had tempeh, plenty of it, and daal without the essential anointing of ghee. That night, in a cold concrete apartment very far from home, I felt like I was eating the coal in my stocking.

But I've had a change of heart.

Recently, I went to Indonesia and found myself navigating an unfamiliar foodscape. I loved the roadside soup stands, but was less impressed with the popular Padang-style restaurants. Room temperature stir-fries and curries, cooked that morning and then put to rest, were served with freshly steamed rice. It makes one wish it were the other way around.

Cooks spend countless hours preparing tofu in Asia. But sadly, in many countries, it's little more than industrial protein produced in commodity-sized portions.

But during those Padang meals, with their multitudinous dishes, I found a pleasurable thread: Delicious tofu and tempeh.

My first tempeh breakthrough came at the Sundanese (West Javanese) restaurant Bumbu Desa, in Jakarta. I picked at starchy sweet potatoes, slurped a bland oxtail soup, and was jarred by a stiff, fishy mouthful of semi-dried squid. Then came a plate of fried tempeh, livened by an unfettered ferment that created a cheesy taste, with a whiff of mushrooms. At Bumbu, their fried tempeh reminded me of Champignon Brie. And their tofu, slowly braised in a dense soy reduction, was caramelized and rich. This did not taste like health food.

The thread of excellent soybean things led east through the long arm of Java, past the tourist circus of Bali, and on to the quiet island of Lombok. And it was there, 700 miles and a time zone away from Jakarta, that I went to see how it was made.

I found a guide, a 26-year-old restaurant owner named Aby, who offered to show me around. Together we rode up and out of Lombok's Kuta Beach, with its sheer cliffs and empty question marks of sand, and onto Lombok's dry central plain. Lombok, a large island just 25 miles east of Bali, has several microclimates. Here, in the rain shadow of Mount Rinjani, Indonesia's second tallest volcano, it is very dry. Rice and tobacco grow sparingly.

Aby and I buzzed past busy mosques and dusty morning markets in towns where horse drawn carriages are still a preferred mode of transport. The local Sasak people smiled, winked, waved--"Hell-low Mees-starrr!" they yelled. Their circular R's sounded like Slavic parody.

The Sasak people are an interesting lot--and they practice some rather unique traditions. Like a form of magic that allows them to steal things without the owner ever noticing (some thieves can even disappear). In Lombok, men still figuratively "steal" their wives (and are fined by village heads if they don't). Though illegal, skilled thievery is regarded with respect and even admiration. Especially if that skill allows the thieves in question to make off with buffalo, chickens or even some tofu.

After a pothole-dodging hour Aby and I reached Puyung Village, which produces tofu for much of the south of Lombok. Their tofu is made from soybeans grown on the western coast of the island. Here, in makeshift kitchens sheltered by coconut palms and banana trees, they boiled soybeans in woks, using only the husks of rice for fuel (In Lombok they also grill their fish over the smoldering, dried husks of coconuts).

Tofu was strained through worn batik sarongs that had been surrendered to the trade. Tempeh, which Aby had told me got its cheesy taste "because they use their feet to make it - very dirty" was actually run through a machine that shelled and split the beans in two.

"We used to walk on the beans, and that's the traditional way," said Adi, an adolescent boy who showed me his family's operation as their little Honda generator choked smoke and spit soybeans, "but that's illegal now. The government told us no feet."

In the production of tofu, soybeans were boiled, then pressed in a vice-like contraption. The resulting white soymilk was boiled until it curdled, and that loose curdled mixture was then mixed with water and sea salt, and poured into wooden boxes lined with cloth to drain. There it sat until a firm, flat sheet was formed. It was then hung on a rack to dry, sliced, and boiled twice before moving to market the following day.

Tempeh started with beans simmered on a slow fire for several hours. Then they were split by machine and boiled once again. This thick mixture is then spread in flat cakes inside banana leaves or plastic with Rhizopus mold starter mixed in. The beans are left to ferment for a day or sometimes two in the moist, warm weather. When the process is over, they're enmeshed in white mycelia, the mortar that binds these beans together and gives them flavor.

Cooks spend countless hours preparing tofu in Asia. But too little attention is spent determining how, where or with what it's produced (there are exceptions - the Japanese are passionate producers of tofu). Sadly, in many countries, it's little more than industrial protein produced in commodity-sized portions.

But tofu and tempeh production in many places in Indonesia remains a cottage industry. Much of it is produced in villages, by farming families like these with bare feet, crooked smiles and thick, gnarled fingers.

And you can taste those people in the product.

(For a look at Indonesian tofu, please check out the slideshow. The pictures are worth more than my words.)