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.
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.