Ah, tempeh — hailing from neighboring Indonesia, the vegetarian protein darling in North America, and never to be found in the Philippines. Tempeh is a cake made from culturing beans — traditionally soy — with the spores of Rhizopus oligosporus. High in protein, fiber, and vitamin B-12, it is a boon to vegetarians and vegans everywhere. The fermentation process breaks down the phytic acid normally occurring in soy, making nutrients more bioavailable.
Enough with the health lesson and on to its deliciousness. I am a huge fan of tempeh and have had it in traditional Indonesian cuisine and western vegetarian cuisine. North Americans love making tempeh into veggie burgers, bacon, bolognese sauce, sandwiches, savory pies — the culinary applications are limitless.
My unrequited love affair with tempeh began 2 years ago when I had the most delectable dish at Satay Junction, a hole-in-the-wall Indonesian restaurant in the West Village, New York City. Terong tempe belado, or tempeh with a concasse of eggplant, tomatoes, and chili — oh how I dream of it to this day! Crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, it had a spicy profile with the power to clear sinuses up and kill a grown man’s tastebuds. The eggplant was cooked to a creamy perfection, the onions were caramelized to high heavens… It was love at first bite and I was determined to recreate that dish in my kitchen, oh if only I could find a local tempeh supplier!
I never did find a local supplier
To add fuel to the fire, Satay Junction is now closed
Fast forward to 2012. I recently traveled to Indonesia to visit my brother and sister-in-law and with an agenda in mind:
- Inhale as many tempeh dishes as I could while I’m there
- Find the yeast needed to transform beans into magical tempeh so I can make tempeh back home on demand
And inhale tempeh I did.
Finding the yeast turned into some sort of treasure hunt meets the amazing race in a traditional market in Yogyakarta…
With my brother’s and sister-in-law’s limited Bahasa, my determination to find this confounded yeast (I had visions of homemade tempeh grandeur and that tempe terong belado was still haunting my dreams), crazy traffic that can give Divisoria a run for its money, and time constraints to have a late lunch at The Sawah before catching an early afternoon flight to Jakarta, we set out on a journey. An innocent inquiry with Milas about the yeast lead to the market escapade in Jalan Malioboro, incessant pestering of the different vendors for “ragi untuk tempe” (yeast for tempeh)… We almost gave up, thinking it was too impossible to find this yeast and that I would have to live a sad, tempeh-less life in Manila.
BUT! One vendor — bless her heart — said to look for a “jamu jamu” (traditional medicine shop) and from one end of the market, up 3 flights of stairs and down 3 flights of stairs, making our way through street food vendors, batik sarong vendors, and dry food vendors, we found said jamu jamu in the other end. And whaddayaknow…
Needless to say, I bought 2.5 kg of this stuff (a little goes a long way — I think I bought a lifetime supply) because I knew very well that I wouldn’t be visiting a traditional Indonesian market any time soon.
And my visions of tempeh grandeur?
Yes, this doesn’t look like much, but that photo on the right is my key to homemade tempe terong belado glory.
I actually bought locally sourced organic soybeans in Mercato Centrale a year ago knowing that someday, one day, I will find my tempeh spore (prince), make beautiful tempeh (babies), and live happily ever after.
Moral of the story:
- I think too much about food and making food.
- I shall share my never-ending love for tempeh to the world, if it’s the last thing I do. Watch out for tempeh cooking classes.