Long before Chik’n patties existed or plant-based burgers bled, the true time and taste-tested meat alternatives were those made from soybeans — namely, tofu and tempeh.
Tofu is a millennium-old staple of Asian cuisines that’s become hugely popular in vegan and vegetarian diets the last few decades. But tempeh, which is somewhat lesser known, is another protein-packed powerhouse food that dates back thousands of years. As the plant-based movement gains traction, more people are forgoing animal protein in favor of healthier, cruelty-free alternatives like these.
Now, you might be thinking: tempeh, tofu; tomato, tomahto. But not quite. While both are indeed soy-based products, they’re made through completely different processes that yield two very different results. Tofu is made from unfermented soymilk, while tempeh is made from fermented soybeans — more on that later.
But why tempeh? Glad you asked. Opting for plant-based options like tempeh over red meat can reap big benefits for your health, and even reverse the effects of chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Another added perk: it’s a simple way to minimize your environmental impact and reduce the harmful effects of the animal agriculture industry.
With so much buzz around plant-based foods, it’s finally tempeh’s time to shine — so prepare to meet this true superfood and discover why it deserves a place in your kitchen.
"Opting for plant-based options like tempeh over red meat can reap big benefits for your health, and even reverse the effects of chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity."
What is Tempeh Made Of?
To make tempeh, whole soybeans are soaked, partially cooked, cooled, and then fermented with a type of funghi called rhizopus oligosporus– a process that's similar to fermenting yogurt and cheese using cultures of bacteria. It’s then compressed into a dense, cake-like patty before being cut into smaller pieces. You’ll most often find it served or sold in thin strips. While soy is the star ingredient, tempeh can also include other ingredients like brown rice, beans, millet, and other grains.
History of Tempeh
Tempeh originated on a centuries-old Indonesian island called Java. It was an ingenious way of turning difficult-to-digest soybeans into a flavorful, nutrient-rich food. The fermentation process required to make tempeh converts the raw beans into a form that’s easy for the stomach to process.
Today, it remains a staple food throughout Indonesia, sold and eaten as commonly as you might find a bagel or dollar slice here. Bazaars and food markets traditionally sell blocks of tempeh wrapped in green banana leaves, or fried with flavorful blends of garlic, chili, and hot sauces.
Tempeh’s fermentation process creates prebiotics, which are great for gut health and your digestive system. But the benefits don’t stop there.
Because tempeh is packed so densely, you get a lot more bang for your buck when it comes to its nutrition, particularly protein. A mere 3-ounce serving contains a whopping 20 grams — that’s about three times the amount you’ll get from tofu! Here’s what else a 3-ounce serving of tempeh will yield:
- 28% of your daily fiber
- 7% of your daily calcium
- 12% of your daily iron
- 9% of your daily potassium
- 5 grams of fat
- 140 calories
As if all that weren’t enough, tempeh is also a great source of vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, and zinc — key nutrients for strong immune health.
And, like other soy foods, tempeh has isoflavones, which are naturally occurring chemicals called phytoestrogens. These antioxidant compounds have cancer-fighting properties that are also known to protect against age-related diseases.
"A mere 3-ounce serving of tempeh contains three times the amount of protein than you'll get in tofu!"
What Does Tempeh Taste Like?
The fermentation process gives tempeh an earthy, umami flavor that’s much stronger than tofu, with a distinct nutty, mushroom-like taste. It does have a slightly bitter aftertaste, but that’s quickly remedied by blanching or steaming. Overall, it’s bland enough to absorb the flavor of surrounding ingredients, making it a great addition to any type of dish. Compared to tofu, it has a much firmer, chewier texture with a lot more bite.
How to Cook Tempeh
Traditionally, tempeh is cut into pieces and marinated in a blend of ground ginger, coriander, salt, and water; then deep-fried and served with chili paste. You can mimic the same process in your own kitchen, using whatever flavors you prefer. Its sponge-like consistency soaks up flavors very nicely, so you can marinate it in any of your favorite spice blends or sauces. Depending on the recipe, tempeh can be steamed, marinated, blackened, or crumbled into sauces and stews. Its firm texture allows you to cook it easily without worry of it falling apart like tofu typically can.
Eat it alone, or use it in quinoa bowls, salads, on sandwiches, or stir-fries — the possibilities are truly endless. However, we recommend preparing it in thin strips so it can adequately absorb any flavors. When fried, it crisps up nicely with a golden, crunchy crust (vegan bacon, anyone?). Another great hack: Run your tempeh through a cheese or box grater and use the grounds in a meat-free chili, pasta, or meatless meatballs for an easy plant-based meal.
Once you’ve opened a package, it can be stored in the fridge for up to five days. Unopened tempeh has a long shelf life, and can last a few months in the fridge or freezer (find out how long your other frozen foods are good for here).
Where to Find Tempeh
Look for tempeh in the refrigerated section of your supermarket. You can usually find it near where tofu and other meat alternatives are found. Tofurky and Lightlife offer plain tempeh options, as well as flavors like smoked bacon, buffalo, or garlic.
However, even plant-based foods can quickly become unhealthy when preservatives and added sugar or salt get thrown into the mix, so no matter what brand you choose, be sure to choose versions that are as minimally processed as possible with fewer, simple ingredients.
Ready to whip up some delicious tempeh recipes in the kitchen? Here’s a few simple recipes that are sure to turn you into a tempeh fan:
- Tawainese Braised “Pork” (Lu Rou Fan): This recipe by TikTok chef Chez Jorge uses king oyster mushrooms and crumbled tempeh in lieu of minced pork for a savory spin on a classic Taiwanese dish.
- Quinoa Tempeh Bowl with Roasted Cauliflower: Let tempeh take your lunch to the next level with soy and sesame-marinated crispy crumbles and perfectly roasted cauliflower.
- Al Pastor Tempeh with Cilantro Lime Cauliflower Rice: Swap the takeout for tempeh with this chipotle chili and adobo-spiced version of your favorite burrito bowl. Enjoy over a bed of cilantro lime cauliflower rice or wrapped in tortillas and topped with fresh pineapple.
- Marinated Peanut Baked Tempeh: This saucy, baked tempeh is marinated in a spicy-sweet caramelized peanut sauce that’s perfect for topping noodles, salads, and bowls.
Have you become a tempeh convert yet? Let us know your thoughts and which way of preparation you prefer most!