Tempeh Is the Underdog of the Fake Meat World

If plant proteins can be classified by high school clique, tofu is the jock, seitan the punk, and tempeh the stoner. Tempeh is the more versatile one, the more nutritionally complex one, the more delicious one—but it’s also the weird one.

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Sep 27 2015, 3:00pm

Photo via Flickr user FoodCraftLab

I often find myself standing over a pot of the moldy beans commonly known as tempeh, wondering why it hasn't had its big moment.When I first tasted fresh tempeh, I thought, I can be vegan forever. Since then, I've obsessively sought out every variation and restaurant that serves it and I've yelled its virtues—B12! Probiotics! Chewy texture and umami! Is it just because no one wants to stand over a pot of moldy beans? If so, can I really blame them?

In a world where soy has gotten a bad rap, fermentation is still largely the realm of hippies, and plant-based proteins are considered lesser than their animal counterparts, it's hard to expect something like tempeh to thrive. The block of fermented legumes and grains, traditionally made from soybeans, originated centuries ago in Indonesia, where it became a staple food when animal protein was prohibitively expensive. Today, it's sold fresh and frozen by small, local producers or pasteurized by big companies for refrigeration and stability. For most, it's just another one of the meat substitutes, like tofu and seitan, that are available when your vegan friend takes you to one of her spots. If plant proteins can be classified by high school clique, tofu is the jock, seitan the punk, and tempeh the stoner. Tempeh is the more versatile one, the more nutritionally complex one, the more delicious one—but it's also the weird one.

Its weirdness and mystique go all the way back to its birth, which no one can quite pin down. According to The Book of Tempeh, an unintentionally oft-hilarious hippie tome that hasn't been updated since it was published in 1979, it might have originated over 2,000 years ago, perhaps after the Chinese brought over their koji, made with the mold Aspergillus oryzae. Or it was an accidental discovery during tofu production. It's unclear, but eventually it came to account for an overwhelming majority of soybean use in the archipelago. There, where the climate is the perfect incubator, it was made wrapped in hibiscus leaves, on which the fungus Rhizopus oligosporus grows in abundance.

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Barry Schwartz. Photo by the author.

New York City-based moldy-bean guru Barry Schwartz, who has been producing Barry's Tempeh for over four years, sources his cultures from the Tempeh Lab at Tennessee's The Farm, though he is currently working with microbiologists to produce his own. His tempeh is available in most health stores and co-ops in the city in the frozen section, because it's fresh and unpasteurized—meaning it loses none of its nutritional value or flavor.

Barry wears rings on almost all of his fingers, has a seemingly permanent smile, and is serene and yogi-like, which makes sense because he spent years cooking at Monroe, New York's Ananda Ashram. I first encountered him through his tempeh at the Greenpoint farmers' market, where a sample bite started my obsession with the fresh stuff. In January of this year, I took a "tempeh demystification" workshop he gave with Fermentation on Wheels at Brooklyn Commune (disappointingly, a restaurant and not an actual commune) where about 30 people packed in to hear him speak and ask questions about any issues they run into during their own fermentation experiments. It was a diverse group, including a middle-aged Long Island couple who'd gone vegan for health reasons and were trying to figure out how to make their own because there is no fresh tempeh available for sale out there. He gave an overview of the incubation process and handed out samples of culture, before serving a family-style, ashram-friendly dinner heavy on the probiotics—fermented cacao, sprouted salad with miso dressing, roasted beets with a minty coconut-milk-based yogurt, and, of course, tempeh tossed with spiralized squash.

Only more curious after the demystification, I went to Barry's commercial kitchen in Long Island City to observe a production cycle. He had recently returned from Puerto Rico, where he'd stayed in the surf town of Rincón, making tempeh from coconut and giving it away for free at the market. He travels often, fermenting whatever legumes and grains are locally available. In Jamaica, he used coconut and peanut; in India, kitchari. Organic, indigenous food is having a resurgence in Puerto Rico, and the tempeh ethos as he lives it is very close to that. That night in the kitchen, a Bronx-raised Puerto Rican woman named Jessica was doing her first shift, hoping that she could learn the process and bring it to Isabela, a part of the island she believes is underserved (Rincón, she tells me, is gentrified).

The rest of the crew in the kitchen was composed of art-school-grad dumpster divers, a vegan personal trainer from Washington Heights, and Barry's business partner, Gordon. It was clear that Gordon is in charge of the business end, as Barry chatted and made everyone dinner. "Whatever the opposite of a perfectionist is, that's me," he said, which is why he takes so well to the experimental nature of fermentation. Gordon kept the operation moving, manning the industrial stand mixer where the tempeh is finally blended with the culture after being dried in a giant centrifuge that once belonged to a laundromat. They are able to make 700 pounds in one shift, and they do two eight-hour production cycles per month. Each pound of tempeh is put into bags and weighed individually, by hand.

That night, they were also working on their potential ready-made tempeh bacon, which they'd been experimenting with for six months. It was marinated in a blend of spices, then laid out on baking sheets, with some on parchment and some straight on the metal before going into the convection oven. The latter came out crisper, but more testing is still necessary. Beyond their different tempeh blends, their only ready-made item had been Barry's Amazing Tempeh Burger. The bacon will be a great boon to their business, as it's the only way most people understand tempeh. TLTs are a vegetarian restaurant staple.

One major producer of pasteurized tempeh, Massachusetts-based Lightlife, has seen sales of their Fakin' Bacon grow by double digit percentages in the last three years. Whereas Barry's can make 1,400 pounds of tempeh per month, Lightlife sells 100,000 pounds. They're able to distribute across the country because of the stability that pasteurization provides. New York City's natural foods distributor, Ace Natural, sells only theirs and SoyBoy's pasteurized tempeh to stores and restaurants.

The proliferation of pasteurized tempeh seems to give it a bad name, with chefs and eaters alike. Julie Kravets of Williamsburg's Little Choc Apothecary, a vegan creperie, uses Barry's soy tempeh in her pumpkin masala crepe. She didn't like tempeh until taking a class on making it at the Natural Gourmet Institute; now it's her favorite protein. She thinks the reason for its lack of popularity "may be that the generic brands just taste awful if not prepared properly, so those who get adventurous and try it quickly abandon it because of the overly bitter taste." One of the only Indonesian restaurants in the city serving tempeh, Greenpoint's Selamat Pagi, uses Barry's adzuki bean and brown rice blend.

Lagusta's Luscious in New Paltz, New York, is a chocolate shop run by chef Lagusta Yearwood that used to occasionally sell homemade chickpea tempeh. "I always hated tempeh until I started making my own, which I did just as a lark. It changed everything for me—it wasn't bitter or sour, it was fresh and mushroomy and delicious," Yearwood tells me. To her, "Tempeh is all about freshness and the greatness of the non-pasteurized versions."

Tara Whistsitt of Fermentation on Wheels—who made the tempeh-making process the subject of her first zine, Fermentation Illustrated—also believes that homemade is best. She admits, however, that there are small-batch makers such as Rhapsody Natural Foods and Hosta Hill, concentrated in New England, who are using good ingredients and using pasteurization both as a means of stopping the fermentation process and to make greater sales. (Tempeh is less likely to be found while hidden in the frozen section.) She blames large-scale production rather than pasteurization for the proliferation of subpar tempeh.

Making it yourself is an intense process that requires more attention than work, but it's certainly a long way from more common ferments, like pickling or kombucha.

Once you've soaked the beans twice and are ready to cook, you pulse them in a blender until they're about a quarter of the size they once were. They're then cooked until underdone to keep the moisture level low, giving the culture space to grow. You then drain the beans and dry them with a fan or hair dryer, until they're just damp. Finally, you stir them up with the culture, divide the mix into bags, and put them into an incubator.

The temperature has to stay between 80 and 90 degrees. If it gets too hot, you'll kill the culture. If done correctly, though, black spots will sprout around the holes in the bag where air has been allowed in, a thick, white mycelium will have formed between the beans, and—24 to 32 hours later—your tempeh is ready to be cooked or frozen. You are ready to happily tend to a pot of moldy beans.

Commercial production is equally as intense. At the production kitchen in Long Island City, Barry and his team are just doing a bigger version of this, using bread proofers as incubators and the aforementioned laundromat-style centrifuge in lieu of a hair dryer. There are a few other regional producers of fresh tempeh, like Smiling Hara in Asheville, North Carolina, which suffered a recall in 2012 because of a salmonella outbreak. (Apparently, many people didn't realize that tempeh cannot be eaten raw.) Twin Oaks, an intentional community in Virginia, sells their own; the Bay Area, of course, has its producers. It's very concentrated, though, and because all of these makers are promoted differently and locally, fresh tempeh stays a somewhat underground obsession.

People come from all over to stay with Barry and learn the process, so that they can take it to new places. Recently, someone from Toronto stayed in anticipation of starting his own operation, and Barry has been in conversations with a doctor in Maryland who wants to make it in Dubai. It's an apprentice style of learning in a very old-school arena. The most accessible way to learn how to make fresh tempeh is from hippie texts like the aforementioned The Book of Tempeh and The Art of Fermentation—the latter, even with its New York Times best seller status, contains a brief essay by a man named Spiky who asks you to "Liberate yourself from meat mockery." While I completely agree with that sentiment, can a food so entrenched in this hippie culture ever really break into the mainstream?

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Probably not. The Washington Post said in January that 2015 would be the year of tempeh, but made little distinction between the refrigerated stuff and fresh. Gordon of Barry's Tempeh suggests that it hasn't taken off because, unlike tofu and seitan, it's not ready to eat. But tofu requires pressing and to be marinated; seitan needs to be flavored. Neither is less intensive than tempeh to prepare. Both are much cheaper, however. A block of organic tofu can cost $1.99, and you can make seitan at home with just a sack of vital wheat gluten, some spices, and a mixing bowl; a block of fresh tempeh from Barry's is about $10. Tofu and seitan both are only made with soy and gluten, respectively, though, and these are both things that—rightly or wrongly—people are squeamish about eating too often. Tempeh's mutability is its strength going forward, and so is its inherent digestibility. The fermentation process reduces phytic acid, which is believed to compromise the body's absorption of nutrients, and tofu has high levels of it.

Neither of these facts change the cost, both of time spent making it yourself or money spent buying it frozen. What began as a food of necessity and poverty has become bougie. You either need to live in an area where a fresh purveyor is selling it to you for much more than the cost of a pound of bulk beans, or you need the time, space, and know-how to make it yourself with a culture that certainly can't be purchased at the corner store.

Divorced from the context of its creation, it looks less like the cure to world hunger and more like a symbol of our broken food system. It hasn't completely lost the potential to be that cure, though. Because it can be made with whatever legumes and grains are indigenous to a place, its slow spread can continue through its champions.

On a still-summer September Saturday, I go see Barry at a Chelsea farmers' market. He's finalized the bacon recipe and it should go wholesale in a month; his burgers are now pre-flavored so that they only have to be put in a pan. He asks all passersby who mindlessly try a sample, "Do you know what you just ate?" Most don't. Two bros walk by and take a look at the offerings. Again, Barry asks, "Do you know what tempeh is?" Gesturing to the artisanal, grass-fed meat stand next to him, he tells them, "That will kill you. Tempeh will bring you back to life." The bros walk on.