23 Jun 2023
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But first… what actually is it? Tempeh is typically made from soybeans soaked, boiled and fermented with a starter culture of the fungus Rhizopus oligosporus – much in the way yoghurt is fermented with bacteria. It can be made using various grains, nuts or beans to form firm patties with a nutty, savoury flavour.
Tempeh vs Tofu: While both start with soybeans, tempeh uses whole beans, making it less processed and much higher in protein (2x) and fibre (10x) than tofu. Fermentation enhances the bioavailability of nutrients and gives it a savoury meatiness.
Where It All Began: Tempeh has been a staple source of protein for more than 300 years, especially on the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali. The earliest reference was found in a manuscript written in the 1600s – a compilation of Javanese legends, traditions and teachings, in which the word “tempe” and a tempeh dish called “sambal lethok” were mentioned.
Discovered by Accident! It’s thought that tempeh was first made accidentally when soybeans were wrapped in banana or teak leaves and unexpectedly fermented by fungi on the leaf surface.
A Global Journey: Later on, in the 1900s, a new wave of worldwide interest in tempeh began, sparked largely by academic research.
Sustainability: Tempeh has a much better efficiency in terms of energy and greenhouse gas emissions than animal-based sources. Compared to beef, it delivers 22x more protein per greenhouse gas emitted, and 3.76x more than eggs. This suggests tempeh is a good food for diversifying our protein sources and contributing to a more sustainable future. (Ahnan‐Winarno et al. 2021)
Tempeh is a source of:
The probiotic debate: The process of making tempeh forms live microorganisms that are referred to as probiotics because they show beneficial effects on health. But tempeh is cooked before eating? Which can inactivate or reduce the number of live microorganisms. However, a recent review reports that some probiotic bacteria can still produce beneficial effects in their heat-inactivated form – referred to as ‘paraprobiotics’.
Fermentation Magic: The fermentation process improves the nutritional profile of the base ingredient by increasing nutrients, improving the bioavailability of proteins and decreasing anti-nutrients.
As part of our diet: Small human studies looked at the effects of eating tempeh on various areas of health.
More research is needed: Human studies on tempeh are small and lacking. To date, most research focuses on unfermented soybeans. Larger, controlled studies are needed to establish the effects of tempeh on various aspects of health like gut microbiota composition.
Buying tempeh: You’ll find it in most large stores, online retailers and health food shops. It comes in various types and brands, made from different beans, legumes, grains, or seeds, and can be plain or pre-marinated. So how to pick?
Tempeh Transformation: 3 Tips for learning to love tempeh
Non-recipe ways to enjoy tempeh
4 recipes to try
History & compounds: Ahnan‐Winarno et al. 2021
Cognitive health: Hogervorst et al. 2011 – Handajani et al. Geriatr. Cogn. Disord. 2021 – Handajani et al. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. 2022
Muscle recovery: Jauhari et al. Pakistan Journal of Nutrition. 2013