Tempting Your Taste Buds With Tempeh

Tempeh (pronounced TEM-pay) is an Indonesian word referring collectively to a variety of fermented foods (typically cooked legumes) bound together by a dense mycelium of white Rhizopus mold into compact cakes. The most popular of these is soy tempeh. In the West tempeh is usually sold in cakes 6″ by 8″ by 3/4″ thick (15 x 20 x 2 cm). These cakes are sliced, then fried, baked, or steamed.

Cooked and de-hulled soybeans may be lightly acidified with lactic acid or vinegar, drained, inoculated with spores of Rhizopus oligosporus mold, packed into perforated containers (polyethylene bags or banana leaves, holding about 8 ounces) and incubated at 30-31°C (86-88°F) for about 24 hours, until the beans are bound together tightly by the mycelium. The tempeh is then ready to sell or to cook.

Tempeh is the only major traditional soy food that did not originate in China or Japan. It originated in what is now Indonesia, perhaps as long as 2,000 years ago on the island of Java. At that time the people of Java, without formal training in microbiology or chemistry, developed a family of fermented foods. Besides cooked soybeans, they learned to make tempeh from oil-seed presscakes (the protein-rich cakes left after pressing the oil from seeds such as peanuts or coconuts) and okara (the soy pulp remaining after making soy milk or tofu).

Before the Javanese learned to make tempeh, the Chinese were making a similar product, the soybean koji for their soy sauce, produced by inoculating cooked, de-hulled soybeans with wild molds such as Aspergillus oryzae. Early traders could have brought this method from China to Java. The Javanese could have modified it to suit their own tastes, and used Rhizopus due to its better adaptation to the Indonesian climate.

Soybeans may have been introduced to Indonesia at the time that regular trade started with south China in about 1000 AD, although one Sundanese (West Javan) name for soybeans is kachang jepun (Japanese bean). Tempeh may have developed from an application to soybeans of an earlier fermentation used to make coconut presscake tempeh (tempeh bongkrek).

In 1603, the Dutch East India Company was formed, and Indonesia came under the influence of the Dutch. The Serat Centini, a Javanese story set in the reign of Sultan Agung (1613-45), tells of the adventures of students wandering in the Javanese countryside in search of truth. The story gives detailed information on many subjects of Javanese culture and life. In a description of a reception at Wanamarta, a prosperous place, it mentions “onions and uncooked témpé,” without giving any further description.

Dutch botanist Georg Eberhard Rumphius reported in 1747 that soybeans were being used in Java for food and as green manure.

Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg discovered and named the fungi genus Rhizopus in 1820. The earliest known reference to tempeh (actually témpé) in Indonesia by a European appeared in 1875 in a Javanese-Dutch dictionary. In 1895 the Dutch microbiologist and chemist H.C Prinsen Geerligs made the first attempt to identify the tempeh mold. A year later, when this article was published in German, he identified the name of the mold as Rhizopus oryzae and he identified the product as tempeh.

The oldest method for making tempeh inoculum was the sandwiched hibiscus leaf method, in which inoculated soybeans were sandwiched between hibiscus leaves and incubated until the molds produced spores. The finished inoculum was known as laruwaru, or usar. The spores on the leaves were rubbed over warm soybeans to inoculate them.

Tempeh’s popularity in West Java (where the culture is Sundanese), and its spread to other Indonesian islands and other countries of the world, probably began in the 20th century. In 1900 Dr. P.A. Boorsma, a Dutch resident of Java, published a 13-page article on soybeans. In a detailed 4-page description of the traditional process for making Tempe kedeleh, Boorsma reported that the soybeans were parboiled, soaked in water for 2-3 days, drained, steamed in a steamer, spread in a layer several centimeters thick on woven bamboo trays in shelves, and covered completely with banana leaves. They were then inoculated by mixing in “mold-containing residues of a previous preparation” and covered lightly with banana leaves. Boorsma then described the rise in temperature to 10-12°C above ambient temperature during the tempeh fermentation, and the likelihood that stories about non-soy tempehs causing food poisoning were true.

In 1900 and 1901, German microbiologist Carl Wehmer studied Javanese ragi (starter culture cakes, also called “Chinese yeast”) occasionally used for making tempeh. In 1902 Dutch physician Adolphe Vorderman discussed in detail two processes he observed for wrapping and fermenting soy tempeh. In the first and best-known way the soybeans were incubated between banana leaves; in the second the soybeans were wrapped in banana leaves to form a packet 20 cm long and 7 cm wide, then wrapped in a jati leaf. The packets were stacked in a bamboo basket for 24 hours covered with bags, then removed to prevent overheating and spread on the floor for 24 hours more.

In 1923, Dutch biochemist Barend Coenraad Petrus Jansen showed that fermentation reduced the “anti-beriberi vitamin” (later named vitamin B-1 or thiamine) in tempeh.

In 1931, Dutch botanist Jacob Jonas Ochse published Vegetables of the Dutch East Indies, a 1005-page book, in Java. The English-language book described the tempeh-making process in detail, including the fact that the mold used was Rhizopus oryzae, and that it was obtained from a former batch of tempeh. In 1932 and 1935, Dutch microbiologist Dr. Andre G. van Veen further investigated the content of thiamine  and riboflavin in tempeh and found it to be a good source of both. In 1935, British botanist Isaac Henry Burkill published A Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula, a two-volume, 2,400-page work, in England. It contained six pages of information about tempeh and other soy foods, including a description of the tempeh-making process. In 1936, biologist Dr. Lewis B. Lockwood and his co-workers studied the physiology of R. oryzae at the USDA Northern Regional Research Center (NRRC) at Peoria, Illinois.

During World War II most of the Malay archipelago was occupied by Japan. In New Guinea, tempeh production stopped and the local New Guinea starter cultures were all lost. Tempeh was served as an important food in other parts of the archipelago during the war, both for the native population and for foreigners in Japanese prisoner of war (POW) camps there. Dutch botanist P. A. Roelofsen was a POW in Japanese camps in Indonesia, where many Europeans were starving on a sparse diet of corn, sweet potatoes, chilies, and soybeans. Roelofsen made the soybeans into tempeh using pulverized dried tempeh as an inoculum. Andre van Veen was also a POW  in Indonesian camps where tempeh was widely served.

In 1946, van Veen reported that even POWs suffering from dysentery and edema, who could not digest cooked whole soybeans, were able to digest tempeh. Fuel was sometimes so scarce in the camps that the soybeans, served as whole beans or used for tempeh, were inadequately cooked. The tempeh process helped to make these under-cooked soybeans much more digestible. Van Veen concluded that many POWs owed their survival to tempeh. That same year, Roelofsen also reported the important role of tempeh in reducing deaths in the camps. Also in 1946, Swiss plant pathologist Gerold Stahel, director of the Agricultural Experiment Station in Paramaribo, Suriname, a Dutch colony in South America, wrote an article about tempeh in Suriname and in New Guinea, which was published in the Journal of the New York Botanical Garden. A summary appeared in November of that year in Soybean Digest.  Stahel described how, during World War II, the United States shipped soybeans to New Guinea in order to feed the Europeans and Indonesians living there. Indonesians, accustomed to eating fermented soy foods, considered plain cooked soybeans to be unpalatable. Stahel, asked to furnish new starter cultures from Suriname, sent both fresh tempeh cakes and pure-culture starters to the Netherlands Indies Civil Administration (NICA) in New Guinea. NICA kitchens all over the territory started using the US soybeans to make tempeh. In April of that year, a Dutch couple founded a tempeh company called Eerste Nederlandse Tempe Industrie (ENTI) in Holland. While living in Indonesia, they had learned to make tempeh. Bringing their starter culture and recipe to the Netherlands, they began to make Europe’s earliest known tempeh there on a home scale for friends and relatives. Gradually ENTI grew and became a commercial operation.

The Dutch people who settled in Indonesia during colonial times were overwhelmingly male, and many of these Dutch men married Indonesian women. This created a new group of people, the Dutch-Eurasians (Indische Nederlanders), also known as Indo-Europeans or Indos. The Chinese population also grew rapidly during the colonial period when workers were contracted from their home provinces in southern China. During the four-year revolution that led to Indonesian independence in 1949, tens of thousands of Dutch, Indo, and Chinese families fled the country. Many of the Indos did not want to emigrate to Holland, which was much colder than Indonesia, and many of the Chinese did not want to live in a newly Communist China.

In 1950, the United States set a quota allowing 25,000 refugees to immigrate from Indonesia. Only about 10% were culturally native Indonesian; the rest were Dutch-Indonesians or Chinese-Indonesians. Most went to warm states such as Florida, with an estimated 500 arriving in California in 1950. That same year, Andre van Veen and G. Schaefer published first study in English on the chemical and microbiological changes occurring during tempeh fermentation. Their paper, based partly on van Veen’s experiences in the POW camp, described the tempeh-making process, and attempted to show why tempeh was so much more digestible than soybeans. Also in 1950 Dutch botanist Pieter Merkus Lambertus Tammes published a detailed description of how tempeh was made in Java, including a description of how tempeh starter (ragi) was made.

In 1951 Dean A. Smith and Michael F. A. Woodruff wrote “Deficiency Diseases in Japanese Prison Camps.” They reported that the POWs in had made soybeans (often inadequately cooked) into tempeh to make them more palatable and digestible. They also reported that prisoners in Japanese camps in Indonesia during World War II obtained their original tempeh mold culture from the withered petals of the hibiscus plant. M. W. Grant published a similar article in Nature in 1952.

Dr. Paul György, a pediatrician and researcher at Philadelphia General Hospital, and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, had been to Indonesia many times, knew tempeh well, and (like Marcel Autret and Andre van Veen) thought that it could improve the diets of infants and children in developing countries. György received his first tempeh from Indonesia in 1954.

In 1955 Marcel Autret and Andre van Veen, both working for the Nutrition Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, outside the US, published “Possible Sources of Proteins for Child Feeding in Underdeveloped Countries” in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. They were the first to suggest tempeh as a protein-rich, nutritious, and low-cost food for infants and children in developing countries. They mentioned tempeh only briefly and noted that soy milk would probably be better suited for feeding children.

In 1958, Dutch botanist Karel Bernard Boedijn reported that R. oligosporus could always be isolated from tempeh, implying that it was the primary fermentation organism.

Yap Bwee Hwa, an Indonesian biochemist of Chinese descent whose name comes from the Hokkian dialect of Fujian province, worked in Jakarta at the Nutrition Institute under Dr. Poorwo Sudarmo, a physician interested in nutritious, low-cost foods for infants. Yap won a Fulbright scholarship to the US and Sudarmo encouraged her to study tempeh. After reading the article by van Veen on the value of tempeh in POW camps, she made up her mind. The Fulbright committee suggested that Yap study at Cornell University, so she wrote to Dr. David B. Hand, head of the Department of Food Science and Technology at Cornell’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York. She visited tempeh plants in Indonesia to study the process, collected tempeh from the Jakarta market, then dried it and put it in a bottle for later use as tempeh starter. Yap left Indonesia for the US in August 1957. In the summer of 1958 she started to work in Dr. Keith H. Steinkraus’ laboratory at Geneva, where she prepared what was probably the first tempeh ever made in America. Yap pursued her study of tempeh as a nutritious food for infants and children, in part because of the high rate of infant mortality in Indonesia caused by malnutrition.

In early 1959 Dr.Keith Steinkraus, while on a trip to check the UNICEF-supported Saridele soy milk plant in Indonesia, visited a number of tempeh shops, becoming the first American to study tempeh in its homeland. Also in 1959 Steinkraus’ Cornell University group began making tempeh for Dr. György in Pennsylvania. Following mostly futile attempts to make tempeh in his own laboratory and lacking adequate facilities for making larger quantities of it, György arranged to have the tempeh made under the supervision of Dr. Hand and Dr. Steinkraus in Geneva, New York. Japanese nutritionist Dr. Kiku Murata worked with György in the US investigating tempeh during 1959 and 1960.

Ko Swan Djien began his studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in August 1959. Like Yap Bwee Hwa, he was an Indonesian of Chinese descent whose name comes from the Hokkian dialect of Fujian province. In September 1959 Steinkraus, Yap, Hand, and their colleagues submitted “Studies on Tempeh–An Indonesian Fermented Food,” which incorporated Yap’s tempeh research, plus additional investigations by Steinkraus’ group on essential microorganisms, and mycelial penetration of the soybeans.

In June 1960 Yap, as part of her graduate degree in nutrition, submitted her MS thesis titled “Nutritional and Chemical Studies on Tempeh, an Indonesian Soybean Product.” Innovations in tempeh production described in her paper included using lactic acid to acidify the soybean soak water, incubating the tempeh in stainless steel trays, dehulling the soybeans mechanically, growing the starter spores on bran, and dehydrating the tempeh in a circulating hot air oven. Also in 1960, a second US tempeh research program was started under the direction of Dr. Clifford W. Hesseltine at the USDA NRRC. Ko Swan Djien arrived at the NRRC in February of that year to study industrial fermentation. Hesseltine suggested that he study tempeh; Ko showed Hesseltine and his group how to prepare it.

In 1961 Ko and Hesseltine authored an article titled “Indonesian Fermented Foods.” It contained detailed information about tempeh making and recipes in Indonesia. Ko noted that there were thousands of tempeh shops in Indonesia and estimated that half or more of the country’s soybean production was used to make tempeh.  That same year, György wrote “The Nutritive Value of Tempeh.” He gradually moved his research away from a focus on child feeding programs toward the more narrow study of antioxidants in tempeh, which might prevent rancidity of tempeh or other foods.

The first immigrant from Indonesia to start a tempeh shop in the U.S. was Mary Otten, who in 1961 began making tempeh in her basement on Stannage Avenue in Albany, California. She sold it to her friends and served it at parties that she catered. For starter culture she used ragi (an Indonesian starter that comes in small cakes) flown in from Java, until she learned how to make her own 12 years later.

In 1962 Hesseltine published “Research at Northern Regional Research Laboratory on Fermented Foods.” That same year, after observing 50 strains of tempeh mold from various sources, Hesseltine identified R. oligosporus as the primary tempeh mold.

In 1963 Hesseltine and co-workers published their first major tempeh study “Investigations of Tempeh, an Indonesian Food.” That same year they discovered a mold inhibitor in soybeans.

In 1964 Dr. Alcides Martinelli, a Brazilian scientist studying tempeh at the NRRC, and Hesseltine developed a new method for incubating tempeh in perforated plastic bags. It soon became widely used by commercial tempeh producers in both Indonesia and North America. In the same paper they described fermenting tempeh in metal and wooden trays, dry de-hulling soybeans, and preparing tempeh from full-fat soy grits. In May 1964, Ko Swan Djien presented an article at the International Symposium on Oilseed Proteins in Tokyo, discussing tempeh’s history, traditional production methods, inoculum, packaging, chemistry, microbiology, contamination, shelf life, recipes, and price. He also described a tempeh pilot plant being developed in Bandung with a mechanical roller-mill de-huller, water flotation hull removal, heated incubator and trays, and improved inocula, and referred to the use of okara (soy pulp) in tempeh. That year, Ko also described an improved soybean-based starter.

Until the mid-1960s many microbiologists thought R. oryzae was the primary microorganism responsible for the tempeh fermentation. In 1965, a summary of Ko’s work on tempeh was published in Indonesian; it included details of a survey of  81 samples of tempeh from various places in Java and Sumatra. Isolation of 116 pure cultures revealed that R. oligosporus was always present in good-quality tempeh, establishing that it was the dominant species used. Indonesian researchers, however, maintain that the best quality tempeh contains a mixed culture.

In 1966 and 1967 Hesseltine and Dr. Hwa-Li Wang published studies showing that tempeh could be prepared using soy-and-grain mixtures (including wheat and rice) or cereal grains alone. In 1967 the Indonesian Department of Agriculture published Mustika Rasa (“Gems of Taste”), a 1,123-page cookbook containing 35 Indonesian tempeh recipes. Also in 1967 several types of tempeh were included in the official Indonesian Food Composition Tables. That same year, Mary Otten started Java Restaurant in California and served many tempeh dishes.

In 1967 and 1968, Ko Swan Djien developed and tested an inoculum based on cooked rice, incubated in aluminum trays, then dried, pulverized, and stored it sealed in a cool place. The process required no sophisticated equipment. In 1968 Ko joined the Department of Food Science at the Agricultural University, Wageningen, in the Netherlands, where he began to stimulate new interest in tempeh in Europe.

In 1969 Dr. Hwa-Li Wang and her co-workers discovered that Rhizopus oligosporus in tempeh produces an antibacterial compound or antibiotic, which is active against a number of Gram-positive bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus and Bacillus subtilis, and which retains this property even after cooking. This supported the view of Indonesians and of some scientists that people who eat tempeh daily have fewer intestinal infections.

Starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s a number of changes began to take place in the process for making tempeh in Indonesia. The most noticeable of these was the use of polyethylene bags (and, to a more limited extent, wooden trays lined with plastic sheeting) in place of banana leaves as the container in which the tempeh was incubated and sold. These were techniques developed by Martinelli and Hesseltine at the USDA NRRC in Peoria, Illinois.

Nasruddin Iljas wrote his MS  theses on tempeh at Ohio State University in 1969. In 1970 he published a short article with colleagues at Ohio State on ways of preserving tempeh. In 1970 Dakimah Dwidjoseputra wrote his PhD dissertation on the microbiology of ragi (tempeh starter) at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. That same year, Dwidjoseputra and Vanderbilt biology professor Frederick Taylor Wolf  studied the microorganisms in tempeh inocula.

In 1971, Dr. Mahmud Hermana and Digiteng Roedjito were the first to publish a method for the use of steamed rice (plus cassava and soy flour) as a tempeh inoculum substrate. Also in 1971, Hesseltine and Wang sent samples of their tempeh to Dr. Doris Calloway at the University of California, Berkeley. She found that tempeh, unlike most foods made from beans, does not cause flatulence. Thio Goan Loo, an Indonesian of Chinese descent, introduced tempeh and other soy foods to Zambia that same year. Later that year, Alexander Lyon, a member of The Farm, a large spiritual and farming community on 1,700 acres in Summertown, Tennessee, learned about tempeh while doing library research on soy-based weaning foods.

In 1972, Lyon, who had a PhD in biochemistry, helped The Farm to set up a small “soy dairy.” While serving as its first manager, and using starter culture and literature supplied by Drs. Hesseltine and Wang, he worked with Dianne Darling to make an occasional small batch of tempeh for the soy dairy crew. Dianne wrote a ten-step kitchen method for making tempeh using spore suspension for inoculum. Soon Deborah Flowers made two large batches of tempeh, incubated in the boiler room at the Canning and Freezing plant, and many Farm members had their first taste. The group developed a method for growing tempeh starter on chopped, sterilized sweet potatoes with cultures in test tubes. Tempeh was an immediate hit in The Farm’s vegan diet. That same year, Hesseltine and Wang reported that bulgur wheat was mixed with soybeans to make tempeh.

In 1974, Mary Otten and her daughter, Irene, started Otten’s Indonesian Foods. That same year, Simon Rusmin and Ko Swan Djien wrote an article on rice-grown tempeh inoculum and Ko showed that the tempeh mold prevented aflatoxin production by Aspergillus flavus. Also in 1974,  Cynthia Bates joined the Soy Dairy crew at The Farm and learned the basic lab techniques for making tempeh starter from Alexander. She built a tempeh incubator out of an old refrigerator and by November 1974 was making 20-30 pound batches of okara tempeh, using the soy pulp (okara) left over after making soymilk.

By the mid-1970s, some larger manufacturers began to use a prepared, rice-based tempeh inoculum; a key supplier was the Department of Microbiology at Bandung Institute of Technology. Tempeh was known in even the most remote rural areas throughout most of Java, where it is served in a wide variety of popular dishes. By the mid-1970s it was being made from at least 17 indigenous seeds and presscakes by more than 41,000 shops, using simple, traditional methods. In Indonesia the great majority of all tempeh was soy tempeh (témpé kedelé) and by the mid-1970s it constituted an estimated 90% of all tempeh produced. Well-known varieties of soy tempeh included thick Malang tempeh and one-bean-thick Purwokerto tempeh. Other traditional types of tempeh included: okara tempeh (tempe gembus or onchom hitau), soybean-hulls tempeh (tempe mata kedele), peanut presscake tempeh (onchom hitam), the occasionally poisonous coconut presscake tempeh (tempe bongkrek), velvet-bean tempeh (tempe benguk), leucaena tempeh (tempe lamtoro), mung bean tempeh (tempe kacang hijau), mung bean pulp tempeh, plus several other minor varieties. The okara tempeh, presscake tempehs, and other non-soy tempehs were consumed more by lower-income people.

By January 1975, The Farm Tempeh Shop was making 80-200 pounds of tempeh a week. The incubator was expanded into a used bean dryer and sporulated okara tempeh (dried and ground) began to be used as a starter. That year, the 1,100-member community featured a section on tempeh (written by Cynthia Bates) in their widely read Farm Vegetarian Cookbook, including the first tempeh recipes to be published in any European language. After Wang, Swain, and Hesseltine at the NRRC published their paper on mass production of tempeh spores, Bates set up a little laboratory and began making tempeh starter for use on The Farm. The starter was grown on rice, using the syringe inoculation technique and a spore suspension of starter sent periodically by Dr. Wang. In the spring of 1975 the R&D department at Rodale Press in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, decided to follow up on the work with tempeh done by Hesseltine and Wang at Peoria. That same year, Slamet Sudarmadji wrote his PhD dissertation on tempeh at Michigan State University. He found that the phytic acid in soybeans (which can bind dietary minerals) was significantly reduced during the tempeh fermentation. William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, in their Book of Tofu (1975), included a recipe for homemade tempeh and seven Indonesian-style tempeh recipes.

The first commercial tempeh shop owned by a native-born American was started in the winter of 1975 by Gale Randall in Unadilla, Nebraska. The former high school teacher had retired four years previously and moved his family to the farm in Unadilla where he had grown up. He read about tempeh in several magazines, and he contacted Dr. Wang at the USDA NRRC in Peoria for starter and instructions. Randall made tempeh for his family for most of the year, then built a tempeh shop in the basement of his home and began selling the product commercially. At night he worked in the post office in Lincoln.

In early 1976, Rodale’s R&D food technologist Mark Schwartz began to work with Dr. Wang in Peoria to develop a simple, inexpensive way to make tempeh at home. They devised a tempeh kit including an incubator made from an Styrofoam cooler heated by a light bulb. They sent the kit with instructions and a questionnaire to 60 readers across the country, who found the new food easy to make and delicious. In March 1976 Brenda Bortz in “The Joys of Soy” introduced tempeh and Rodale’s tempeh research to readers of Organic Gardening. In May 1976 Mother Earth News ran a long excerpt on tempeh from The Book of Tofu by Shurtleff and Aoyagi. That article and others listed the USDA NRRC at Peoria as America’s only source of tempeh starter. Over the next few years the Peoria group sent out some 25,000 tempeh starter cultures and instructions for making tempeh, free of charge to people and organizations requesting them. That same year, Cynthia Bates began making and selling powdered pure-culture tempeh starter from the Tempeh Lab. Alexander Lyon typed up a three-page flyer called “Tempeh Instructions,” which contained the first instructions in any European language for making tempeh at home, and listed The Farm as a source of tempeh starter. Bates wrote and The Farm printed a 2-page flyer titled “Tempe,” which described how to make five pounds of tempeh and contained four recipes, including the world’s first Tempeh Burger recipe. This flyer was distributed with the starter. Bates and co-workers wrote a 20-page article titled “Beatnik Tempeh Making” (later retitled “Utilization of Tempeh in North America”) for the Symposium on Indigenous Fermented Foods in Bangkok. The Farm’s satellite farms established commercial tempeh shops in San Rafael, California, and Houma, Louisiana. America’s first soy deli, set up in August 1976 at the Farm Food Company’s storefront restaurant in San Rafael, featured tempeh in Tempeh Burgers, Deep-fried Tempeh Cutlets, and Tempeh with Creamy Tofu Topping, the first tempeh dishes sold in an American-style restaurant. In late 1976, during a two-week visit to The Farm, Shurtleff and Aoyagi wrote (with Bates) a 4-page pamphlet titled “What is Tempeh?” which they enlarged and published in early 1977.

In January 1977 Organic Gardening published “Tempeh Keeps ’em Coming for More Soybeans.” Jack Ruttle, a Rodale staffer, summarized the results of Rodale’s research on tempeh to date and gave detailed instructions for making tempeh at home. The article listed The Farm as the only known source of split, hulled soybeans. Orders began to arrive. Soon Dr. Wang at the NRRC in Peoria, flooded by orders for tempeh starter, was forwarding many of them to The Farm. In June Prevention, the largest health magazine in America, ran a cover story and editorial by Robert Rodale titled “Tempeh, a New Health Food Opportunity.” He visited Gale Randall’s tempeh shop, encouraged others to start tempeh shops and to “get in on the ground floor of a new industry.” The article brought Randall and his shop instant fame. He eventually developed a diverse line of tempeh products but conservative Nebraskans were slow to accept them. Also in June, Organic Gardening (circulation 1,350,000) published Shurtleff and Aoyagi’s “Favorite Tempeh Recipes” and Wang, Swain, and Hesseltine’s “Calling all Tempeh Lovers,” describing an easy method for making this rice-based tempeh starter at home. In September Mother Earth News featured “How We Make and Eat Tempeh Down on the Farm,” by Cynthia Bates and Deborah Flowers, and in November Vegetarian Times published “Tempeh.” The Mother Earth News article led to a surge of orders for both starter and split soy beans. On 21 September 1977, macrobiotic pioneer Michio Kushi, speaking in Washington D.C. to the President’s committee on food policy, recommended the use of traditional, naturally fermented soy foods such as soy sauce, miso, and tempeh. By 1977 the Farm community, with Suzie Jenkins as head tempeh maker, was producing at least 60 pounds of tempeh a day, and they were using a centrifuge to dry the soybeans after cooking and before inoculation, a technological breakthrough that soon caught on among commercial tempeh makers. That same year, Farm Foods was founded; it took over marketing of the tempeh starter, together with hulled soybeans and revised editions of the tempeh instructions. The three items were sold nationwide as America’s first Tempeh Kit by mail order and in some natural food stores. The starter was also sold separately with the leaflet.  Steinkraus organized a Symposium on Indigenous Fermented Foods, held in Bangkok, Thailand, in November 1977 in conjunction with the fifth United Nations-sponsored conference on the Global Impacts of Applied Microbiology (GIAM V), and attended by over 450 scientists from around the world. There 17 papers were presented on tempeh, more than any other single food.  That same year, Lindayati Tanuwidjaja studied the fortification of low-cost presscake tempehs with soy flour to improve the diets of the very poor. Also in 1977, Steinkraus and his colleages showed tempeh to be one of the best vegetarian sources of vitamin B-12, which was produced by the bacterium Klebsiella. (Nutritional analyses of commercial tempeh done by independent scientific laboratories showed that typical samples contained an average of 8.8 micrograms of vitamin B-12 per 100 gram portion, or 293% of the US Recommended Daily Allowance of 3 micrograms.)

During 1978 Farm Foods promoted its tempeh starter and tempeh kit by serving grilled tempeh at numerous natural foods trade shows. The February 1978 issue of Organic Gardening magazine listed Farm Foods as the best source of tempeh starter and split beans, which stimulated sales. In July 1978 East West Journal ran its first tempeh story, “Make Your Own Soyburger” about the Farm’s tempeh. Also in 1978, Louise Hagler edited a revised edition of the Farm Vegetarian Cookbook that contained 12 pages on tempeh, including many recipes.

By early 1979 there were 13 tempeh shops in the US, one in Canada, and four in the Netherlands. Prior to 1979 tempeh had been available on The Farm only on special occasions. In that year, however, a Tempeh Trailer, developed in Louisiana by John and Charlotte Gabriel, was brought to The Farm. The tempeh incubator was moved out of the Canning and Freezing building and made into a walk-in incubation room in the trailer. John Pielascyzk became head tempeh maker, and thereafter any Farm member could go at almost any time to the Farm store, open the freezer, and take home tempeh.  In July 1979 Harper & Row published Book of Tempeh by Shurtleff and Aoyagi, the first book in the world devoted entirely on tempeh. It contained 130 American-style and Indonesian tempeh recipes. That same month, Michael Cohen (who had formerly lived on The Farm) made his first tempeh at The Tempeh Works in Greenfield, Massachusetts, a remodeled gas station with 1,200 square feet of floor space. Their tempeh was served at the annual Soyfoods Conference at Amherst. The company began regular commercial production in September. Also in 1979, Thio Goan Loo introduced tempeh to Sri Lanka. That same year, Ko and Hesseltine wrote “Tempeh and Related Foods.”

In 1980 The Soy Plant in Ann Arbor, Michigan, developed Tempeh of the Sea, containing sea vegetables such as hijiki, dulse, and arame, which resembled fish sticks. In August 1980 Island Spring near Seattle, Washington introduced the world’s first commercial tempeh burgers, made on a small scale in individual petri dishes. By the end of its first year in September 1980, the Tempeh Works in Massachusetts grew to be the biggest tempeh producer in America at that time, reaching about 3,000 pounds per week. Cohen sold his tempeh refrigerated rather than frozen, and he developed the first effective steaming system to give such tempeh a long shelf life, 10 days in summer and 14-21 days in winter. By 1980 articles about The Tempeh Works were published in regional and national magazines, and the company ran ads for its tempeh to accompany many of these articles.

In 1981 Margaret Nofziger, Farm nutritionist, wrote an article on “Tempeh and Soy Yogurt,” with five tempeh recipes, for Vegetarian Times. By that time, Otten’s Indonesian Foods in California was making tempeh plus a full line of Indonesian tempeh-based foods under the brand name Joy of Java. These foods included Sweet & Sour Tempeh and Sayur Lodeh Tempeh. That same year, Indian microbiologists I. M. David and Jitendra Verma suggested that the antibacterial substance in tempeh might inhibit the growth of gram-positive Clostridium bacteria, which are known to produce gas in the intestines, and may be the reason tempeh doesn’t cause flatulence. In August 1981, East West Journal printed Aveline Kushi’s “My Favorite Tempeh Recipes.” Aveline used tempeh extensively in diets for cancer patients. People practicing a macrobiotic diet increasingly used tempeh daily, and a number of them started tempeh companies. Rodale Press published Ray Wolf’s Home Soyfood Equipment, which included a new method for making tempeh at home using unsalted soynuts, which took less time and cost only about 10 cents more per pound than the traditional method. It also included detailed plans for making a home tempeh incubator.

In March 1982, Organic Gardening summarized Wolf’s quick tempeh method. That year, Farm Foods began actively advertising and selling bulk, powdered tempeh starter to America’s growing number of tempeh shops.

In 1983 Steinkraus edited the Handbook of Indigenous Fermented Foods, containing 94 pages of information about tempeh, much of it from the 1977 Symposium.

By 1984, Farm Foods had captured a majority of the market for bulk, powdered tempeh starter, and became financially independent from The Farm. In May 1984 the Tempeh Lab (under the directorship of Cynthia Bates) became independent of Farm Foods. Both became for-profit companies. In March 1984 The Farm published Tempeh Cookery with full-page color photos. To promote this book (and tempeh), in June 1984 Farm Foods and its sister company, The Book Publishing Company, served samples of deep-fried tempeh and several tofu dishes to 20,000 attendees of the American Booksellers Association Convention in Washington, D.C. Farm Foods was also planning to have one or more large tempeh companies (perhaps one on each coast of the USA) make private labeled tempeh, which would then be sold nationwide through the company’s extensive soy milk ice cream (Ice Bean) distribution channels. Farm Foods could then also use the tempeh, the starter, and the book to promote each other. Rodale Press published Camille Cusumano’s Tofu, Tempeh, & Other Soy Delights.

Over the centuries, wherever Javanese people have gone, they have taken tempeh with them. Today, it is widely produced and consumed in Suriname (where 30% of the population is Indonesian), and on the west and south coasts of Peninsular Malaysia. To a lesser extent it is consumed in Singapore, New Caledonia, and the other Indonesian Islands (especially Sumatra). Tempeh is also increasingly popular in the Netherlands.

Tempeh can:

  1. Fight free radicals and inflammationManganese in tempeh is a co-factor for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, helping to prevent cell and tissue damage that can lead to heart disease, cancer, and other diseases. Riboflavin in tempeh helps protect cells from oxygen damage, supports cellular energy production, and maintains your supply of other B vitamins. Inositol (phytic acid) in tempeh may retard cell growth and work as antioxidant. Saponins in tempeh prevent cancer cells from growing and mutating and neutralize free radicals to prevent disease. Genistein in tempeh acts as an antioxidant and anti-cancer agent. Daidzein in tempeh protects cells against oxidative damage to DNA, reduces incidences of prostate cancers, and works with tamoxifen to protect against breast cancer. Glycitein in tempeh may fight oxidative damage and cancer. Fermented soy foods like tempeh have more bioactive peptides (protein breakdown products) than non-fermented soy foods. In fermented soy foods, two key storage proteins—glycinin and conglycinin—are broken down by molds, yeasts, and bacteria into peptide fragments that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
  2. Promote cardiovascular health. Tempeh is a rich source of both types of fiber, soluble and insoluble, but it’s particularly rich in soluble fiber, which may help improve your blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber is particularly effective at lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol levels. The copper in tempeh also plays a role in keeping your blood vessels healthy. Phosphorus, along with magnesium in tempeh, helps maintain a healthy heartbeat. Magnesium, along with potassium, helps regulate blood pressure. Saponins in tempeh lower blood cholesterol and decrease risk of cardiovascular disease. Glycitein in tempeh has weak estrogenic activity and may fight atherosclerosis. Whole food soy products provide better cardiovascular support than dietary supplements containing isolated soy components (like purified isoflavones). Bioactive peptides in tempeh have blood pressure-lowering properties. Some of the peptides in tempeh inhibit angiotensin-converting-enzyme (ACE) and are therefore classified as “ACE inhibitors.” When this enzyme is inhibited, it is often easier for your cardiovascular system to regulate blood pressure. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of peptides in tempeh can help protect your blood vessels from oxidative and inflammatory damage. Eating whole soy foods is associated with improved levels of blood fats, including a moderate lowering of LDL cholesterol. Soyasaponins are phytochemicals that can reduce the rate of lipid peroxidation in blood vessels, reduce absorption of cholesterol from your gastrointestinal tract, and increase excretion of bile acids. All of these events contribute to a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. Soyasaponins are in many forms of soy, but fermentation increases their concentration.
  3. Help you maintain a healthy weight. Tempeh is high in protein and fiber. A 4-ounce serving of cooked tempeh has 41% of the Daily Value (DV) for protein, along with 48% of the DV for fiber. These nutrients help you feel full and keep you satisfied. The same serving contains just 12% of your DV for calories, and just 4% of the DV for carbohydrates. Genistein in soy may also help you maintain a healthy weight. Some of the unique peptides  in soy are associated with obesity prevention and treatment. Some of these peptides can decrease synthesis of sterol regulatory element binding proteins (SREBPs), thereby helping decrease synthesis of certain fatty acids as well as the depositing of these fatty acids in fat cells. Because fermented soy foods like tempeh have increased concentrations of bioactive peptides (versus non-fermented soy foods), tempeh may help in weight management.
  4. Prevent cancer. Genistein (an isoflavone phytochemical in soy) can increase the activity of a tumor-suppressor protein called p53. When p53 becomes more active, it can help trigger programmed cell death (apoptosis) in cancer cells, and it also help trigger cell cycle arrest (helping stop ongoing cancer cell activity). Genistein also blocks the activity of protein kinases in a way that can help slow tumor formation, especially in the case of breast and prostate cancer. Genistein is in higher concentrations in fermented soy foods like tempeh (compared to non-fermented soy foods like soy milk and non-fermented tofu).
  5. Prevent  type 2 diabetes. Soy foods can reduce insulin resistance by increasing the synthesis of insulin receptors, especially in combination with a moderate amount of polyunsaturated fat intake. High levels of total soy intake (approximately 200 grams per day) are also associated with decreased risk of type 2 diabetes.
  6. Maintain strong bonesCopperphosphorus, and magnesium are important for maintaining strong, healthy bones. Potassium maintains the density and strength of bones by decreasing urinary calcium loss. Saponins in tempeh protect against bone loss. Genistein in tempeh protects against osteoporosis. Daidzein in tempeh seems to reduce the risk for osteoporosis by stimulating the formation of osteoblasts. Glycitein in tempeh may fight osteoporosis.

Nutrients in 4 Ounces of Cooked Tempeh





1.46 mg



12.00 g



20.63 g



0.61 mg



286.90 mg



0.40 mg



87.32 mg



12.90 g



2.42 mg



454.73 mg






2.42 mg



1.78 mg


vitamin B6

0.23 mg



108.86 mg



23.81 µg


omega-3 fatty acids

0.14 g


pantothenic acid

0.51 mg



0.06 mg



10.60 g


vitamin B12

0.16 µg



15.88 mg



0 mg


Tempeh is available in supermarkets throughout the US, where it may be kept either in the refrigerated or freezer section. In a well-stocked supermarket, you’ll find tempeh in a variety of forms, including pre-cooked and ready-to eat, as indicated on the package. Other forms are not yet cooked and should be cooked before eating. You’ll find plain soy tempeh that has been made from soy and Rhizopus, and you’ll also find tempeh made from soy-grain combinations, especially soy-rice. The tempeh you find in the supermarket may also have been flavored with soy sauce or other seasonings.

Look for tempeh that is covered with a thin whitish bloom. While it may have a few black or grayish spots, it should have no pink, yellow, or blue coloration as this indicates that it has become overly fermented. In general, choose tempeh in which the soybeans and grains appear tightly bound. Also choose tempeh that tends to have a drier outside surface. High-quality, plain soy tempeh often has an aroma that is mushroom-like.

You can keep uncooked, refrigerated tempeh in the refrigerator for up to ten days. If you do not prepare the whole package of uncooked tempeh at one time, wrap it well and place it back in the refrigerator. Uncooked tempeh will also keep fresh for several months in the freezer. If you freeze tempeh and then thaw it, you can keep the thawed tempeh in your refrigerator for about 10 days. Also, if you are purchasing tempeh from a refrigerated display in the supermarket, check the package for a “sell by” date. It should have one, and you should make sure that it gives you plenty of time to use the tempeh.

If you buy tempeh that says “pre-cooked” and “ready to eat” on the package, you might still want to steam this tempeh for a several minutes if you enjoy a tempeh that is a little softer. Pre-cooked tempeh that is steamed just before its addition to a recipe can sometimes do a better job soaking up recipe flavors as well.

Tempeh can be cut into slices or crumbled. Sliced tempeh usually has more presence and feels like a more featured ingredient of the dish. Both sliced and crumbled tempeh do a great job soaking in flavors and sauces.

Try tempeh in some of these recipes:

This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this website to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

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