10 Dishes That Show the Beauty of Tempeh

May  1, 2017

One of my favorite chapters in Indonesian food writer Sri Owen's latest book is the one she devotes to tempe, or what some in the West may better know as tempeh. Tempeh is a nourishing, nutritious food made from fermented soy beans, bound and strained into a structure that resembles a cake. It is semi-soft in texture and neutral in flavor, giving it vaguely chameleonic properties. It can take on many different flavors.

"Tempeh has been credited with saving many lives in times of war and famine, and with keeping poor people healthy and well-fed at all times," Owen writes. She goes on to explain how the Javanese, whom she credits with inventing tempeh, have created different, exciting ways to make this diet staple feel like a gourmet ingredient, while charting its popularity in the West among vegans and vegetarians.

In this transit, tempeh's history has become somewhat obscured. Last week, I came across this article about a tempeh bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich from Epicurious attached to some rather lazy, glib social text. “Newsflash: tempeh doesn't have to be gross!” it joked. This felt off to me. As others noted, copy like this assumes quite a lot about a publication’s audience. In this case, Epicurious believes its readership to be predisposed to finding tempeh a dish to detest, when that may, in fact, be far from the case.

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Here are 10 of my favorite tempeh dishes we've got on the site—ones that showcase the wide-ranging capabilities of this ingredient, and its fundamental beauty. For some of us, tempeh was never “gross” to begin with.

What's your favorite dish with tempeh? Let us know in the comments.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


Yashoda J. May 7, 2017
Love tempeh in any form!
Sengi May 2, 2017
The Tempeh and Sweet Potato Hash is a recipe that keeps coming up on this site despite being taken, without credit, from the blog Your Vegan Mom. The only change is the inexplicable (and misplaced) addition of dijon.
Monica B. May 1, 2017
I have been making Deborah Madison's Indonesian Style Tempeh for 15 years. Looking forward to branching out but I still love this version--often [the blog in which I link to the recipe I posted isn't impressed by the recipe--but I love it. Maybe its because I keep the tempeh in the simmering liquid and just add oil to the pan to crisp it up and keeping all the marinade in the dish.]
creamtea May 1, 2017
I love Madhur Jaffe's Saambal Goreng Tempeh Kering: you puree shallots, garlic, hot red chiles, and [dried galanga-but I use fresh ginger] with water. Fry up tempeh cut into matchsticks until reddish brown and crisp--drain on paper towels. Remove from the pan, then sauté some fresh bay leaves (she calls for daun salaam but my Indonesian friend says fresh bay is fine). Add the pureed spice paste together with salt, brown sugar, and tamarind paste. Add back the tempeh-serve immediately. I have to make extra. It's a snack but I make enough for dinner, maybe served over rice or with a fresh salad side. Hmmm, haven't done this in awhile. Maybe this week. so good.
creamtea May 1, 2017
and agree the comment that "tempeh doesn't have to be gross" is just stupid and ignorant.
susan G. May 3, 2017
Yes, that just perpetuates a foolish and ignorant attitude -- clear in your essay, but not on the home page link that brought me here. BTW, the natural foods deli we owned/ran served TLT sandwiches from 1981 - 89 -- that's Tempeh, Lettuce and Tomato. We pan-fried the tempeh (made by pioneer soy people in Greenfield MA), poured on a little soy sauce to glaze both sides. Still making it that way...
dinner A. May 1, 2017
How about some Indonesian recipes with tempeh?
Mayukh S. May 1, 2017
Definitely try Sri's rendang, from the book:
dinner A. May 1, 2017
Looks great -- thanks for the link!
ninastrauss May 2, 2017
if you put coconut milk on anything it is good...
Whiteantlers May 1, 2017
I have a soy allergy but the article was great.
I like using it as the "bulker" in meat loaves and balls.
Erin May 1, 2017
I don't get that mentality. Obviously, I don't like everything I try, but I've always been curious about foods beyond what I grew up with. A certain family member of mine always wrinkles her nose and tells me that I eat "weird" food. I in turn think that she is wildly boring. She can eat her low-fat egg beater omelets with low-fat cheese doused in ketchup and I'll keep enjoying the rich diversity of the food world.

I'm an omnivore and always keep my freezer stocked with tempeh for when the craving hits. The earthy, slightly fermented flavor works so well in a lot of dishes. I will never eat a reuben with corned beef again because it is just so much better with tempeh marinated with caraway, mustard seed, and soy with some caramelized onions to deepen the flavors. I also dig it sautéed with soy sauce and honey and served on naan with avocado, greens, and tahini sauce. Oh, man, now I'm hungry.
Rachel O. May 1, 2017
Ooh, that last preparation you described sounds so good! LOVE a good tempeh Reuben, too. I've never marinated the tempeh for them but I'll have to try it! Inspired.