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Inside Our Food

Tempeh | How It’s Made

You might have seen tempeh on the supermarket shelves alongside tofu, on the menu of a veggie café, or even while backpacking in Asia. But did you know it’s colonised with fungus? Read on to find out exactly how tempeh is made!

What is tempeh?

Tempeh or Tempe (pronounced tem-pay) is a traditional Indonesian fermented food made from cooked soybeans inoculated with a fungus, usually of the genus Rhizopus. During fermentation, white threads of mycelium bind soybeans into a dense cake that can be sliced and cooked in various ways.1 Unlike tofu, also made from soy, tempeh has a chunky, meaty texture and a lightly nutty taste.

Tempeh is a nutrient-dense, versatile ingredient that will absorb the flavour of your favourite sauces and spices. Although tempeh is generally made from soybeans, other beans, legumes and grains, such as lentils, lupin, maize, or barley can also be used, each providing a different sensory experience and nutritional composition.2,3

Where does tempeh come from ?

Tempeh is believed to have originated on the island of Java, Indonesia, at least 300 years ago. According to the Serat Centhini, a compilation of Javanese tales and teachings describing events that took place back in the 17th century, tempeh curry (sambal tumpang) was made to welcome guests.4 ​Although the origin of the word “tempe” is still debated, it likely comes from the ancient Javanese word "tumpi," which refers to a white food made from sago flour​.5 Tempeh was originally produced by wrapping soybeans in banana, teak, or waru leaves, suggesting that it may have been the result of accidental contamination by fungus spores present on them.​6

How is tempeh made ?

Indonesia is one of the largest tempeh producers in the world, with small-scale producers preparing around 2.4 million tonnes of tempeh annually.​

While tempeh preparation varies slightly by region, there are several common steps:

Discover the process of making soy sauce, another delicious fermented product 

Why should you try tempeh?

The combination of soybeans and mycelium makes tempeh a great source of plant-based protein, providing around 20 grams of protein per 100 grams. This is comparable to many animal-based products.

Tempeh is also low in saturated fat, high in fibre, and rich in essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium and phosphorus​.8​ What’s more, the fermentation process makes it easier for us to absorb these nutrients. During fermentation, Rhizopus fungi do this by releasing enzymes that break down antinutritional components like phytic acid, which interferes with mineral absorption.9 In addition, these enzymes make proteins and lipids easier for our bodies to digest.

Tempeh also contains isoflavones, a group of naturally occurring plant compounds with potent antioxidant properties linked to numerous health benefits, such as lowering cholesterol.10,11 Isoflavones in non-fermented soybeans are bound to sugar molecules, while in tempeh, they are present in a free form that is more readily bioavailable.5

So there you have it – tempeh is a versatile, nutritious fermented food eaten in Indonesia for centuries and now gaining popularity worldwide. Why not give it a try?

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References
  1. Aaslyng, M. D. & Højer, R. Introducing tempeh as a new plant-based protein food item on the Danish market. Foods 10, 2865 (2021). Accessed 18 February 2023
  2. Shurtleff, W. & Aoyagi, A. History of Tempeh A Special Report on The History of Traditional Fermented Soyfoods. (2007). Accessed 18 February 2023
  3. Romulo, A. & Surya, R. Tempe: A traditional fermented food of Indonesia and its health benefits. Int J Gastron Food Sci 26, 100413 (2021). Accessed 18 February 2023
  4. Ahnan-Winarno, A. D., Cordeiro, L., Winarno, F. G., Gibbons, J. & Xiao, H. Tempeh: A semicentennial review on its health benefits, fermentation, safety, processing, sustainability, and affordability. Compr Rev Food Sci Food Saf 20, 1717–1767 (2021). Access
  5. Putri, A. M. H., Waluyo, J. & Setiawan, A. A. R. Carbon footprint analysis of modern and traditional tempeh production in Indonesia. AIP Conf Proc 2024, 020010 (2018). Accessed 18 February 2023
  6. Shubrook, N. BBC Good Food. The health benefits of tempeh. ​Accessed 18 February 2023.
  7. Sutardi & Buckle, K.A Phytic acid changes in soybeans fermented by traditional inoculum and six strains of Rhizopus oligosporus. Journal of Applied Bacteriology 58, 539–543 (1985). Accessed 18 February 2023
  8. Kuligowski, M., Pawłowska, K., Jasińska-Kuligowska, I. & Nowak, J. Isoflavone composition, polyphenols content and antioxidative activity of soybean seeds during tempeh fermentation. http://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/tcyt 15, 27–33 (2016). Accessed 18 Februa
  9. Taku, K. et al. Soy isoflavones lower serum total and LDL cholesterol in humans: a meta-analysis of 11 randomized controlled trials. Am J Clin Nutr 85, 1148–1156 (2007). Accessed 18 February 2023.
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