What Is Tempeh? A Favorite Among Vegetarians Explained

tempeh lunch

If you are new to vegetarianism you maybe asking, "What is tempeh?". This nutritious soy food is likely to become one of your favorite foods.

Tempeh Is Probiotic

Like yogurt, tempeh is a probiotic food. This means that it contains bacteria that are beneficial to the human digestive system. The primary probiotic bacteria in tempeh is Rhizopus oliigosporus. This bacteria has the following benefits:

  • It produces a natural antibiotic which is thought to inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria in the body. It is thought to help guard against the following maladies:
    • Poor digestion
    • Some cancers
    • Acne
    • Osteoporosis
    • Lowers cholesterol
    • Decreases symptoms of menopause
  • It produces phytase which helps to breakdown phytate acid. This increases the absorption of minerals, including:
    • Iron
    • Calcium
    • Zinc

It may also aid the absorption of vitamin B12

How Tempeh Is Made

Tempeh is actually soybeans held together by an edible mold. While this may initially sound unappetizing, it is not much different from blue cheese or other fermented foods.

First, the soybeans have their outer hulls removed. Next, they are cooked. They may be mixed with other beans or grains for variety. The cooked beans are then mixed with a Rhizopus oligosporus culture. Sometimes they are mixed with a Rhizopus oryzae culture, depending on the manufacturer. The mixture is incubated for about twenty-four hours at a constant temperature.

As the soybeans ferment the mycellium mold forms long, white threads. These pull the soybeans together to make a solid cake which is very much like meat in texture. It must be kept refrigerated once the tempeh has completed its fermentation process.

How Does Tempeh Taste?

Much of the flavor of the finished product will depend on the ingredients that go into it. Traditional tempeh has a taste that can be described as mildly meaty. Some people have described it as a combination of mild beef and mushrooms.

Some tempeh is smoked. This gives it a flavor that is similar to bacon and other smoked meats. It is especially good when added to bean dishes. Other tempehs are marinated in lemon or other marinades to give them distinct flavors. It can be used in place of beef in many recipes.

What Is Tempeh's History?

What is tempeh's history? How did it become such an important part of the vegetarian diet?

Although the soybean had been a major part of the Chinese diet for centuries, it was the Javanese people of Indonesia that developed tempeh sometimes before the 1500s. Tempeh became a popular Javanese food and it was introduced to the Dutch who colonized Java in the 1800s.

Through the Dutch the knowledge of tempeh spread to Europe. A Dutch microbiologist, Prinsen Geerlings, was the first to attempt to identify which mold was responsible for the finished product. Immigrants from Indonesia started tempeh manufacturing companies in the Netherlands in the late 1800s and the product spread to other European countries. It was considered by many to be a vegetable and a side dish rather than the main course.

Tempeh was not commonly known in the United States until the 1960s. It was used in many recipes created by the cooks of The Farm. This was a large, popular commune in Summertown, Tennessee. Many young people saw The Farm as being a Utopia of sorts and followed their lead in various areas, including diet. Since it is high in protein and low in fat and carbohydrates, tempeh is great in a weight loss plan.

Tempeh was largely homemade or difficult to find until 1975 when Mr. Gale Randall of Nebraska began commercial production of tempeh. When an article about Randall in Prevention Magazine hit the news stands in 1977 tempeh became a nationally sought after food and by 1983 one million tempeh cakes were being commercially produced per year.

Where to Find Tempeh

You should be able to find tempeh in the refrigerated section of most health food stores and natural foods markets. There will likely be several varieties and brands to choose from. The tempeh will look pebbly in appearance and may range from golden to darker brown.

The lighter the tempeh the milder it will tend to be. If this is your first time using tempeh a milder flavor may be the better choice. As you learn which varieties you like you can experiment with it in your own recipes. Using tempeh is a delicious way to enjoy the health benefits of vegetarianism.

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What Is Tempeh? A Favorite Among Vegetarians Explained