What is Tempeh

What is Tempeh?

Lately, several delicious local, non-soy tempeh makers have been popping up near where I live – shoutout to Little House of Tempeh and Project Umami! (In fact, their tempeh is so over-the-top delicious that it inspired me to start making my own, but I’ll save that for a later blog.) Maybe this is true for you, too? Or maybe you are seeing more tempeh in markets and stores, or even featured restaurants? All this begs the question, What is tempeh?

Little House of Tempeh
Some of my favorite local tempeh from Little House of Tempeh
Project Umami Tempeh-Black bean and sunflower seed
A photo I took for Project Umami of black bean and sunflower seed tempeh

Traditionally, tempeh is a food that originated in Indonesia, made by fermenting soybeans with Rhizopus, and more specifically often Rhizopus oligosporus. This is a fungus, but before you panic! – it is a happy, beneficial, health-promoting fungus that can improve things like nutrient bioavailability (i.e., lets your body better absorb and use certain nutrients within the tempeh). Other legumes can also be used, such as black beans, chickpeas, and other pulses. Tempeh makers may add in other grains or seeds, too, like in the photo above of black bean and sunflower seed tempeh.

What is Tempeh
The tempeh in this photo was my first attempt at homemade black bean tempeh!

A recent review article by Ahnan-Winarno and colleagues (2021) addressed several key points about tempeh, including health benefits, processing, and fermentation. This is a very dense paper packed with information. Here are a few highlights from the article (but let me know if you want to hear more!):

  • Tempeh is rich in protein, thanks to all the delicious legumes (whether soybeans or other beans are used).
  • The fermentation process can increase the amount of vitamin B12 and various health-promoting bioactive compounds in tempeh, as well as protein digestibility. This is especially important for vegetarians and vegans, because vitamin B12 is mainly in animal products. The ability to get vitamin B12 and more bioavailable protein from plant-based foods of course has implications for sustainable food systems. Gotta love the power of fermentation!
  • There is a surge in tempeh research, with many more studies and articles in recent years. I don’t know about you, but I’m super curious to see what scientists will find!
  • Making tempeh can be quite the process! In a nutshell, it generally looks something like this: soak, dehull (although sometimes people do not), wash, boil, drain, cool, inoculate, package, and incubate at a controlled temperature. Phew! The whole process can take several days.
  • Tempeh is associated with various health benefits, such as gut health. However, the authors state that more studies are needed. This is how pretty much any science article you will ever read ends. That is the thing with science – always learning more, always evolving, and always finding new questions! “More research is needed” may not feel like a satisfying answer, but it means scientists recognize there is still plenty out there that we do not yet know. This ending used to seem kind of like a copout to me, but these days, I like to view it as an exciting silver lining. Why? It means there will always be something new to learn and be fascinated by, and that we can be lifelong learners!

Craving Tempeh?

Why not try this miso tahini tempeh stir fry? It’s one of my mom’s favorite recipes on this site. And I mean come on, what more of an endorsement do you really need? I’ll get some additional tempeh recipes up soon though because this food is too delicious to only have one recipe on my website.

Want to Learn More About Tempeh?

Let me know in the comments if you have any questions about tempeh, and I will do my best to get you answers! Also, I recently started making my own tempeh. Want to know what that looks like? Tell me if you want a blog on that!

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