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.
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.