Travel & Places Asia Pacific

The Secret to Preparing Tempeh the Right Way

You’ve seen tempeh at the grocery store, those mysterious white cakes nestled among meat substitutes and tofu products in the refrigerated section. But how to prepare tempeh in a tasty manner? When cooked correctly, tempeh will make a believer out of even the most voracious carnivore.

Tempeh’s fame as an affordable, healthy protein is spreading in the West. Once only available at organic food stores, tempeh can now be found in most grocery chains.

The term ‘meat substitute’ doesn’t sound particularly appealing and is hardly fair to this up-and-coming superfood. And although marketed that way, tempeh didn’t originate in Indonesia as a vegetarian meat substitute. Instead, think of tempeh as a nutritious, easy-to-prepare protein that can be added to any dish.

Enjoy these tips for how to prepare tempeh to ensure that you or your guests won’t be driving straight to a burger joint for your second dinners.

What is Tempeh?

Unlike other traditional soy foods, tempeh originated in Indonesia rather than China. Through controlled fermentation, soybeans are pressed into cakes, yielding a much firmer texture than that of tofu. Tempeh has a semi-dry, crumbly texture that becomes firmer as it is cooked. Loaded with health benefits, tempeh has a mild and nutty taste -- making it ideal for taking on marinades and sauces without changing the taste of a dish too much.

While tempeh has been a staple in many parts of Indonesia for centuries, it’s popularity has only spread to the West in relatively recent years.

Marinate Your Tempeh First

Many people who are preparing tempeh for the first time make the same mistake: they slice up the cakes and add them to recipes without any doctoring up first. And unfortunately, that’s the last time that many of these disappointed cooks will ever experiment with tempeh. Throwing tempeh into a recipe without marinating it first is a sure setup for a bland, tasteless dinner.

Fortunately, tempeh really takes in liquids well; coming up with a tasty marinade is half the fun! Nearly any combination of salty, sweet, and spicy liquids will work -- you almost can’t go wrong. Slice up the tempeh to provide more surface area and absorption before soaking it. Ideally, marinate the tempeh for at least an hour before cooking. Soaking longer is better, however, keep it in the fridge for safety.

Choose a marinade mix that compliments whatever style of food you will be preparing. Some ideal ingredients for creating tasty tempeh marinades include: soy sauce, teriyaki, rice vinegar, balsamic vinegar, citrus, garlic, ginger, curry, maple syrup or sorghum, Sriracha or Tabasco sauce, Indonesian or Malaysian sambal, sesame oil, ketchup or tomato paste.

Precook the Tempeh

While precooking is optional depending upon the application, you’ll often get better results if you precook tempeh a little before adding it to a dish. Precooking is definitely a good idea if you sliced the tempeh into strips or cubes and want to minimize crumbling as it’s cooked.

After marinating, tempeh can be browned in a skillet with light oil. Ideally, the cakes will have been sliced up first to expose more surface area. Keep the heat low so that it cooks all the way through. Using low heat will also help to avoid scorching your marinade. Flip each piece halfway through the process. The longer you cook, the more firm and brown tempeh will become, but don’t overdo it. Remember: the tempeh will be cooked a second time when prepared in the rest of the dish.

Tempeh Isn’t Just for Asian Food

While tempeh works great in stir-fries and rice dishes, it can be used as a substitute for meat, tofu, or mushrooms in practically any style of cooking. Tempeh will work well as the protein in pastas, Mexican dishes, gyros, pitas, and pretty much anything else that you can imagine. You can crumble tempeh to put into soups, chili, and casseroles instead of hamburger meat.

While tempeh isn’t safe to eat raw, once cooked, it can be enjoyed chilled or at room temperature. Chilled tempeh cut into strips lends salads a nice, nutty taste -- not to mention additional protein. Chilled tempeh also works great as a meat substitute in sandwiches and wraps.

The Nutritional Value of Tempeh

Tempeh is an incredibly powerful source of protein -- more gram for gram than tofu -- without any of the cholesterol found in animal products. Even better, tempeh is low in sodium and saturated fat while containing polyunsaturated fats (triglycerides) and flavonoids that fight diseases. Tempeh is rich in potassium, magnesium, iron, calcium, and dietary fiber.

Because tempeh is fermented, it has much less phytic acid than other soy-based foods, allowing better absorption of minerals. The fermentation process also makes tempeh easier to break down and digest.

Nutritional data for 100 grams of tempeh:
  • Calories: 193
  • Total fat: 11 g
  • Saturated fat: 2.2 g
  • Cholesterol: 0 g
  • Sodium: 9 mg
  • Potassium: 412 mg
  • Protein: 19 g
  • Percent daily values based on 2,000-calorie diet: Calcium 11%; Iron 15%; Vitamin B-6 10%; Magnesium 20%

See some good tempeh recipes.

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