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Rich in probiotics and a good source of protein, tempeh is now rediscovered as superfood, writes Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup

BEING partly of Javanese descent, I’ve had tempeh my entire life. My favourite is tempeh fried with salt and turmeric, and eaten with sambal kicap.

And just in time for Hari Raya, tempeh can be found in traditional Javanese festive dishes such as lodeh and sambal goreng.

Made mostly of soybeans, tempeh is held together by a white fungus called Rhizopus oligosporus.

In modern versions – the ones sold in supermarkets – tempeh is fermented in clear plastic. Traditional ones are wrapped in leaves such as simpoh ayer (Dillenia suffruticosa) leaf before it is wrapped in newspaper.

Traditionalists will point out that leaf-wrapped tempeh is much more flavourful than plastic-wrapped ones.

I like the leaf version because the ends of the tempeh are thinner, giving the fried tempeh a crispier texture.

According to, “tempeh is unique among major soy foods in that it is the only one that did not originate in China or Japan. It originated in today’s Indonesia, almost certainly in Central or East Java, almost certainly prior to 1800 and perhaps as long ago as thousands of years or more”.”

Note how “almost certainly” was used twice. That’s because “tempeh is also distinctive in that less is known about its origins and early history than about those of any other soy foods”, the website adds.


As fermented food, tempeh is rich in probiotics i.e. the good bacteria that aid digestion. Soyabeans make it a good source of protein, while a 85g serving of tempeh contains about eight per cent of the recommended daily amount for both calcium and iron.

Given its nutrient content, it’s no surprise that tempeh has been co-opted by the global vegetarian and vegan community as a meat replacement. Tempeh is served in homes and restaurants, cooked in ways that I’ve never had at my home, or at least not in the same way.

One recipe from calls for tempeh to be marinated and baked in peanut butter, soya sauce and bird’s eye chilli. It sounds odd, but then I remember pecal, a Javanese dish that has different boiled vegetables and fried tofu and tempeh, eaten with a peanut dipping sauce.

To some individuals, the decision to give up or cut down on eating meat is a conscientious one. There are questionable animal farming practices and they see the environmental cost of rearing livestock as too high for our fragile planet.

A plant-heavy or a plant-only diet is perceived as a kinder, gentler way of living our lives here on earth.

And millions of vegans and vegetarians will tell you that you can live full, healthy lives – healthier, some would say – without consuming meat.

So in this situation, particularly to western consumers, tempeh is exotic superfood.

And because western trends have a way of making their way to us, tempeh can also be found on the menus of local eateries, alongside other exotic superfoods such as kale, avocado and quinoa.

Tempeh the writer is used to, in lodeh, a traditional Javanese festive dish. Photo by Rohanis Abdul Shukri.


Davina Goh did not grow up with tempeh. The 35-year-old had a lot of tofu growing up, along with the usual array of beef, chicken, pork and seafood. Her first experience with tempeh came about 10 years ago. She couldn’t remember exactly, but it was probably a sambal tempeh dish from a Malay rice stall at lunch.

Tempeh plays a much bigger part of her life now that she’s a vegan.

“It’s an amazing substitute for meat,” Goh says. “It’s not just because of the protein content but it soaks up flavours so well. I love experimenting tempeh with sauces, especially those that people associate with meat, like Marmite.”

That said, Goh doesn’t believe that vegetables should take the place of meat in a dish. She takes meat-based dishes as an inspiration, but cooks in a way that let vegetables shine with their own unique taste and textures.

“It’s natural, it’s a clean form of protein and it can be homemade. You can buy it wrapped in leaves. It’s inexpensive and easy to find, and can be cooked in many different ways. But it is an acquired taste.”

Having eaten tempeh for as long as I can remember, it’s strange to hear it described as an acquired taste. Goh remembers being shocked at learning the white part of tempeh is actually mould, though not shocked enough to stop eating it.

Meanwhile, Goh’s husband is from Denmark, and he’s only had tempeh in the last few years. “He’s learning to like it. He knows it’s cheap and available, and that it’s good for you, so he’s learning to appreciate it even more.”

“Tempeh is a clean form of protein and it can be homemade. It’s inexpensive and easy to find, and can be cooked in many different ways,” Davina Goh. Photo by Zunnur Al Shafiq.

A Fresh take

DAVINA Goh is a stage performer and an all-round active person. Last year, she swam and kayaked around Pulau Perhentian to raise funds for marine and coral conservation, and has spent eight months at a kungfu school in China.

She’s also a vegan and calls herself a plant-based lifestyle advocate. Here, she presents two tempeh-based vegan recipes for a fresh take on the traditional ingredient.


Time needed: 20-30 minutes

Serves 2-3 people

Makes 10-12 patties


2 1/2 cups tempeh, roughly chopped

2 tbsps potato starch

1 tbsp ground flaxseed

3 shallots

4-5 cloves garlic

3-4 sprigs coriander

1 lemongrass stalk (white part)

1 small lime leaf

2 tsps aonori (Japanese nori seaweed flakes/powder)

1 tsp brown sugar

3/4 tsps salt

1/2 tsps brown rice vinegar

Purified water

Cooking oil


1. Soak flaxseed in two tablespoons of purified water and let it stand for five minutes to thicken.

2. Cut 1.5cm off lemongrass stalk starting from the white end.

3. Chop coriander finely and cut lime leaf into very small pieces.

4. Put all ingredients (except cooking oil) into a food processor and process until finely minced.

5. Heat a 1/2cm layer of oil in a cooking pan on high heat.

6. Mould mixture into small patties the size of your palm.

7. Bring heat down to medium, place patties into pan and allow to cook for approx. 2 about two minutes each side or until golden brown.

8. Serve immediately with Thai sweet chili sauce as a suggested dip.

Tempeh seaweed cakes. Photo by Zunnur Al Shafiq.


Time Needed: 30-40 minutes

Serves 3-4 people


1 1/2 cups tempeh, sliced finely or diced into small pieces

50g (1 1/2 cup) basil leaves

1/2 large bell pepper

2/3 cups cauliflower, chopped into small pieces

1 stem of ginger flower

2 tbsps thick soya sauce

2 tbsps light soya sauce

2 tsps arrowroot powder

2 tsps carob powder (or substitute with cocoa powder)

1 tsp brown sugar

1/4 cup purified water

1 onion

5 cloves garlic

Cooking oil

Salt and pepper to taste


1. Heat two-three tablespoons cooking oil in cooking pan on high heat.

2. Cook tempeh pieces with a pinch of salt in pan for 10 minutes or until it starts to turn brown. Remove from heat and keep aside.

3. In a bowl, mix together light and dark soya sauces, arrow root powder, sugar, carob powder and water. Keep aside.

5. Chop garlic into slices and dice onion, remove stalks from basil leaves and cut bell pepper into thin strips. Cut 1.5cm off the ginger flower stem and cut this piece finely into small pieces.

6. Heat frying pan with two tablespoons of cooking oil on medium heat.

7. Fry onion, garlic, ginger flower and basil for one minute.

8. Toss in cauliflower and bell pepper and stir fry for one-two minutes.

9. Add tempeh pieces, followed by sauce mix. Stir continuously on low heat for three-five minutes to allow sauce to soak up basil flavour and thicken, and for tempeh to absorb some of the sauce as well.

10. Add a dash of pepper if preferred and serve immediately with rice.

Basil tempeh stir-fry. Photo by Zunnur Al Shafiq.

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