Tempeh Crash Course

Most of us have heard that tempeh is a healthy fermented food, probably one of the best plant-based protein sources. But what exactly is it? Where did it come from?

Originating in Indonesia, tempeh is a fermented food made from cooked whole soybeans that have been treated with cultures (rhizopus oligosporus) and formed into a dense, chewy cake-like patty. It has a firm, meaty texture and distinct nutty flavor.

Can you still eat tempeh if you don't want to eat soy?

Soy is a rather controversial food these days because soy bean is one of the top GMO crops in the US. Though traditional tempeh contains only soybeans, many brands on the market these days are soy-free made from all kinds of  (gluten-free) grains, legumes and seeds like azuki beans, white beans, flax seeds, brown rice and buckwheat.


What are the nutritional benefits of tempeh? What is healthier, tempeh or tofu?

Tofu is made from soy milk that has been coagulated. Tempeh is made from the whole bean. That's why tempeh is considered more of a whole food, with a higher nutritional profile. A 4-ounce serving of tempeh provides about 18 grams of vegetarian protein, along with an impressive 8 to 10 grams of fiber from the soybeans. (Tofu has about 1/2 the protein content and no fiber). The fermentation process also makes the bean more digestible, adds pro-biotics and healthy enzymes to the food.

What is my favorite brand of tempeh?

I am very fortunate to be in Brooklyn where I found a tempeh artist who makes his products from non-GMO grains and beans from scratch, freeze-packing them without any pasteurization. The result is a fresh, living food that tastes way better than the vacuum sealed products you see in most markets. (But any tempeh is better than no tempeh at all!) You can find Barry's tempeh here.

How do I cook tempeh?

Tempeh is a dense, unyielding food with a distinct flavor, but it also absorbs whatever marinade or sauce you give it. For me, browning them in a cast iron pan gives it the best crunchy texture. A glaze or a rich curry sauce also works amazingly well. Here are my two favorite recipes:

Tempeh in Red Pepper Sauce

Sweet and Sour Glazed Tempeh