This cross between a mushroom and a soybean cake originated over 1,000 years ago in Java, Indonesia. Soybeans are an excellent pantry staple because they are super-high in protein, however, like other beans, they are solidly difficult to digest. In China and Japan they are ground and soaked and cooked and strained. Then the “milk” is congealed into curds and pressed — that's tofu. It takes all this processing to make soy easy to digest.
Tempeh developed in tropical Java, where perfect conditions for fermentation exist —high heat, high humidity, native soybeans and the Rhizopus oligosporus fungus. It occurs naturally on beautiful yellow-flowered sea hibiscus (Hibiscus tiliaceus) and on teak leaves, which are both used as traditional food wrappers. Perhaps ancient people compressed cooked soybeans into a cake, then wrapped that cake in the right leaves, and set it aside for a day to discover that cake of soybeans transformed into an appetizing delicacy, bound and encased in a fluffy white mycelium. It smelled fresh; it tasted delicious; it was filling and energizing.
A mycelium consists of the threadlike branches of fungi. They move into a food source on a microscopic level, secreting enzymes and dissolving big molecules, breaking them into simpler carbohydrates that we can use. In soybeans, mycelia digest the oligosaccharides, complex carbohydrates that are not easy for us to digest and end up causing “digestive distress.” Rhizopus works so well that the resulting tempeh digests easily with none of the dreaded gassy effect.
Tempeh is an excellent substitute for meat. It has 18 grams of protein per three-ounce serving. Unlike the plethora of meat analogs on the market today, it comes about through a totally natural process. Consuming less animal products is a powerful weapon against many environmental challenges and an effective way to improve your own health.
These are good reasons to eat tempeh. Lately, I’m excited about the Smoky Grilled Tempeh recipe in Veganomicon, The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook by Isa Chandra Moscowitz. She is a marvel at making vegan tasty, and she isn't afraid of punchy spicing. It's an inspirational recipe that caught me up. Now after a multitude of trials I have added my own adaptations, including more garlic, easier methods, and, best of all, using it as the heart of a great burger.
I’ve tried a lot of veggie burgers, finding them mushy, squishy and meh on flavor. The Smoky Braised Tempeh burger is firm, charred, smoky and very satisfying. This burger dances with all those traditional burger accompaniments — pickles, mustard, ketchup, red onions, tomatoes. Leftover Smoky Braised Tempeh bits just disappear from the refrigerator as nuggets of flavor on salads, in stir-fry or soups, fried into eggs, on pizza, and onward. We love this stuff.
And here's how to make it!
Start with a pound of tempeh (available at all the natural-food stores or make it yourself.) Cut the tempeh into burger-sized slabs and lay them in a wide pan, one layer deep. In a bowl mix together 1 cup water, ¼ cup each of soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, brown sugar and olive oil, 2 tablespoons of both liquid smoke and smoked paprika, and 1 teaspoon garlic powder. Pour this over the tempeh slices. Let marinate for 15 minutes to an hour, then turn the slices over and marinate another 15 minutes.
Pour a thin slick of olive oil into a large cast-iron skillet and heat over medium heat. Place the tempeh slices in the pan in a single layer. Let sizzle until browned, then add half the marinade. Simmer uncovered until the marinade has evaporated. Turn the pieces over and add the rest of the marinade. Simmer to evaporate, and let the slices brown a little at the very end. Remove from heat, serve on toasted buns with all the usual burger fixings.
Enjoy the delicious and satisfying experience of a high flavor, healthy and planet-supportive burger.
Adapted from Wild Fermentation by Sandor Elix Katz
You'll need some simple equipment to prepare the beans and simulate the growing conditions of Java.
Purchase the soybeans and starter online.
I could not find them at local stores, so I bought 25 pounds of organic soybeans on the internet. Order the tempeh spore online, too. I bought a pound (a lifetime supply for me) on Amazon for under $10.
Soak, cook, drain and dry the beans.
Soak 2-1/2 cups soybeans overnight. In the morning rinse and rub them well until the casings come off and the beans split in half. Rinse and rub until casings rise to the top of the pan, then skim them off with a strainer. Now cook the beans for 40 minutes, until they are firm but al dente. Skim off any more casings that have risen to the top. Drain the beans fully, let sit a few minutes in the strainer to cool. Then pour the beans onto a towel. Roll them up. Unroll and then let them sit out to air dry.
Inoculate the beans: Put the beans in a large bowl and add 1 teaspoon tempeh starter and 2 tablespoons cider vinegar. The vinegar creates an acid environment that discourages unwanted microbes. Mix well.
Form the tempeh: I use baking sheets lined with parchment paper placed so it wraps all around the beans. I compress the beans into a cake about an inch thick and secure it with tape. Alternatively you can put the mixture in a one-gallon zip bag and poke a bunch of holes in it for air circulation.
Put the tempeh in an incubator: The ideal incubation temperature is about 88F (31C) degrees. We use an old refrigerator rigged with a set-point thermostat and a pan of water for humidity. Here’s an even lower-budget solution: outfit an ice chest with a small crock pot. You'll have to fiddle around to get the right temperature. Check out this site for more instructions: thetempehlab.com.
When is the tempeh ready? The mycelium takes 24 hours, more or less. Check the temperature often. The process gives off its own heat, so you may need to adjust the temperature. You'll know it's done when the entire mass is covered in a nice white fuzz and the beans hang together. If you leave it longer, you might see some grey spots begin to form. That's the fungi sporulating. Don't worry, still good to eat.
Cut, and chill the tempeh immediately in a single layer. Then you can pack it. Refrigerate for up to five days, or freeze it for up to six months.
Chef Molly Beverly is Prescott's leading creative food activist and teacher. Photos by Gary Beverly.