Saturday, May 9, 2009
Until I first went to Java in 1983, I had never tasted tempeh. I hadn't even heard of it. I had eaten tahu (tofu) of course, and even cooked with it at times, but tempeh was a totally new experience for me.
I can't recall the first time I had it. I'm sure it was probably while I was dining at the company mess (dining hall), as a part of nasi rames. In Java tempeh finds its way into meals the way potatoes do here in the US. It may be fried or boiled in sauce, with vegetables, meat, or by itself, but it almost always finds itself somewhere on the table. And that is a good thing.
Tempeh is the Barry Bonds of soy products, but you don't have to worry about any asterisk next to its stats. It is legit. Tempeh is 20% protein by weight, the same as steak, and two and a half times as much as tofu. Sometimes disparaged by the shopping mall middle class of Jakarta as poor people's fodder, tempeh is elemental and worthy of reverence. Ironically, while it is considered poor people's food in Indonesia, here in the US it can cost as much as an Angus ribeye. In local Asian markets thin blocks of it can sometimes be found in the freezer section. Whole Foods and the local co-op sell it fresh--plain, Cajun spiced, and terriyaki flavor among the varieties offered--but these too are in small, thin eight to twelve ounce packages. While I'm sure many of these taste fine once they are fried or sauced, none taste to me as tempeh should. Good tempeh--to my taste--should be almost like a ripened cheese. There should be a sweet nuttiness to a raw slice of it.
The process of making your own tempeh is time consuming, but not difficult. If you're planning on having tempeh for dinner tonight, you better head over to your local organic foods store to pick up a slab now. Tempeh making follows the rhythm of Javanese gamelan, slow, repetitive, rather than the more frenetic gamelan of Bali. Plan ahead and you will enjoy a treat akin to a fine artisanal cheese. Once you have successfully made your own tempeh, store bought will seem like Wonder Bread.
The bible for tempeh and tempeh making is The Book of Tempeh, by Shurtleff and Aoyagi. It is truly a phenomenal book in its clarity and abundance of information related to tempeh. I can't say that I've tried many of the western recipes in the book, but the Indonesian ones (approximately 70) are authentic with very clear instructions. The directions for actually making tempeh at home are also very clear and easy to follow. The directions I am providing are simply a condensed version from the book. Anyone who enjoys tempeh should really get the book.
1 pound of dried soy beans
15 cups water, divided
1 TBS rice vinegar
Tempeh starter (choose one)
1 tsp extended spore-powder
1/4 tsp spore-powder mixture (I use this, but am able to get it from family in Indonesia)
1/2 tsp meal-texture starter
2 ounces fresh tempeh
2 quart size plastic bags, perforated with a toothpick every 1/2 inch or so, puncturing both sides of the bags
Bring soybeans and 7 1/2 cups of water to boil in medium pot. As soon as water comes to a boil, remove from heat, cover, and set aside for 12 hours or so.
Pour off the water from the pot, then rub soybeans between hands to remove hulls. This takes quite a bit of time. You want to remove as many hulls as possible. Fill the pot with water and float off the hulls as best you can. This will probably take a good fifteen--twenty minutes and several pots of water.
When you've removed as many hulls as possible (or until you've decided enough is enough), add the remaining 7 1/2 cups of water along with the vinegar to the soybeans in the pot. Bring to a boil and cook uncovered at an active boil for about 30 minutes.
Drain the cooked soybeans in a colander and spread on a paper towel-lined baking pan. Let cool to about body temperature, blotting dry with paper towels (or use a fan to speed the process as I did the other day when I realized I was otherwise going to be late for class).
Sprinkle your starter over the cooled beans and mix well.
Place the beans in the perforated bags. I like a thickness of an inch to an inch and a half. Place the bags in a stable, moderately warm environment (the book explains how to make an incubator--I just place them inside my oven, but don't forget they're there) and wait.
Shurtleff and Aoyagi say it will take about 22 to 28 hours at 86º to 88º F. I find that it takes 48 hours or more in my oven (where the temperature is probably around 70º or so most of the year). As the tempeh blooms, it begins to generate its own heat, so the temperature in the oven actually does get into the mid to high eighties. I would recommend some sort of incubator if you live in an area where temperatures are more extreme.
When the tempeh is completely covered by a soft white blanket of mold, it is ready. The brick of tempeh will be warm to the touch and there will be beads of moisture in the bags. Slice a piece from the slab and you should find each bean is cocooned in a pillowy cloud of the white mold. Try a slice or two raw, alone or paired with a slice of apple, and you will begin to understand why tempeh is so popular with the Javanese.