The Jakarta Post, Jonathan Agranoff
Part of Indonesia's culinary heritage, and now a healthfood for the West, tempeh is unique amongst soy foods and has been an important part of the Indonesian diet for hundreds of years.
Native to Indonesia, it is found throughout the archipelago and eaten by millions, but until recently was almost unknown out of the country.
Now, research in food science and nutrition has shown this food to be unique amongst vegetarian foods, and already popular among vegetarians in the U.S. and Australia.
Any visitor to an Indonesian market or dinner table will almost certainly come across tempeh, though wonder what on earth it really is. Closely resembling a Camembert cheese in color and texture with a mushroom-like aroma, tempeh is in fact one of the world's first soybean foods. It is composed of cooked soybeans that have been fermented through by an edible fungus which, when mature (like a cheese) becomes an attractive and aromatic white cake suitable for a variety of uses in hundreds of local dishes.
In fact, in a country where meat is expensive and often of dubious quality, tempeh is an excellent high protein substitute to meat or fish, without the need for scrupulous hygiene or expensive refrigeration.
When scientists first began undertaking research in food and nutrition in Indonesia, tempeh revealed itself as an important component of the native diet. Moreover, the method of production was itself considered an ingenious process of applied microbiology and became the focus of attention in several laboratories in the U.S. by both American and Indonesian researchers.
One of the earliest documented records of the nutritional importance of tempeh was its significance during the second world war in Asia. Here, tempeh was known to the prisoners of the Japanese in prison camps in Java, many of whom suffered from dysentery and were unable to digest most of what little food they had. Boiled soybeans were virtually indigestible to them. Only tempeh, with its high digestibility was able to be assimilated and the food reportedly saved the lives of many Dutch and British prisoners of war in Java. It was smuggled through the fence by the local Javanese and those who survived have attributed it to the tempeh they managed to sustain themselves with.
Nutritionally, tempeh represents a food rich in protein (the same quantity and nearly the same quality as beef because of its high digestibility) but unlike beef, contains no cholesterol or saturated fats that current evidence links to heart disease in the "affluent" West. It also contains a certain vitamin (B12) that is normally only found in animal products and milk.
In this respect tempeh is unique as a vegetarian food without the accompanying disadvantages of many unpalatable "meat substitutes" of poor texture and flavor.
It is also very easy to digest due to the fermentation and very suitable in small quantities for babies or those with malabsorption diseases. In fact, one of the latest nutritional findings has been the use of a tempeh-based formula weaning food in Indonesian primary health centers to successfully treat infants suffering from stomach infections and dehydration. A natural antibacterial compound has been identified and is still being studied. Research has found that rabbits fed high tempeh diets show increased resistance to infection and raise their antibody levels, suggesting interaction with the immune system. Basically, tempeh represents a cheap form of good quality protein and other nutrients, many essential to a healthy diet, that is readily available and is therefore well suited to a developing nation as a local high quality food resource that is cheap to buy and use.
The craft of tempeh making is passed on through generations of tempeh making families, in much the same way as that of beer brewing or cheese making. Tempe is manufactured in a way that is more like the work of a microbiology laboratory than a village household; the tropical climate serves well as an incubator with constant temperatures day and night.
Basically, tempeh is made from cooked soybeans that have been inoculated with a special starter culture of fungal spores, packed into banana leaves (although the ever popular plastic bag has taken over from the traditional banana leaves) and then left to ferment. During this time, a luxuriant growth of white mold grows through to knit together the beans and turn them into tempeh.
Fermented foods in Southeast Asia, especially tempeh, have an important role to play in rural development and by providing employment and generating income for investment in the rural economy.
Tempeh-making is a labor-intensive industry; a clear advantage in a country with serious over population and urban employment problems. Nationwide cottage industries like tempeh-making are vital to maintain profitable rural employment opportunities that help to stem rural to urban migration that is so typical a cause of city poverty in tropical developing countries.
Moreover, tempeh manufacture in Indonesia is very well suited to the technological environment of the country, having evolved over hundreds of years and uses all locally available home grown ingredients; domestic skills with no dependence to the purchase of tools or skills from abroad.
In fact, tempeh has been considered as a food for Africa where technology transfer may play an important role. Indeed, what has been a Javanese village tradition since ancient times may yet hold a high potential for the future.