Secret ingredient: Tempeh

TRACEY SUNDERLAND
Last updated 05:00 25/09/2013
Tempeh
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TEMPTING TEMPEH: Tempeh is described as nutty, meaty, and mushroom-like in flavour.

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Although it may be new to the west, tempeh is a soy food that has been eaten in Asia for hundreds of years.

WHAT IS TEMPEH?

A traditional soy product originating in Indonesia, tempeh is made by a natural culturing and controlled fermentation process in which the rhyzopus culture is added to soy beans that have been softened by soaking and partial cooking. In the fermentation process the culture grows to effectively knit the beans together and form a solid cake, which can then be sliced, marinated, fried and eaten as a pure natural protein.

WHAT DOES IT TASTE LIKE?

Tempeh has a complex flavour that has been described as nutty, meaty, and mushroom-like with a dense texture.  It's often prepared by cutting it into pieces, soaking, or marinating then frying. When deep-fried, tempeh finishes up with a crisp golden crust while the inside remains soft and sponge-like. Tempeh can also be dried, which makes it more portable, less perishable and ideal as a snack food.

WHERE CAN I FIND IT?

Here in New Zealand tempeh is made and professionally packaged for sale by the Chalmers family under the Tonzu brand. You'll find it in the refrigerated section at most local supermarkets, usually near the tofu and vegetarian products. Health food stores also stock it, but if you're looking for an imported tempeh, check out your local Asian supermarket.
    
WHAT CAN I USE FOR A SUBSTITUTE?

Although the texture will not be the same, you can use a firm tofu in place of tempeh as it will produce a similar taste when marinated and fried.
The Tonzu brand of tempeh contains one of the few vegetable sources of Vitamin B12. High in protein, low in saturated fat, with no cholesterol, it is also gluten- and dairy-free, and contains no additives.

HOW DO YOU USE TEMPEH?

Tempeh lends itself to marinating or soaking in order to absorb flavor, after which it's usually fried or deep-fried, which as mentioned earlier produces a crispy crust. It can also be lightly wok-fried (as in a stir-fry), or cut finely and added to soups. Incredibly versatile, it can be grated and used as a meat substitute in a Bolognese or chilli sauce, along with various curries or stews. It freezes well and if dried, it will last for a relatively long time provided it is sealed properly.

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WHAT IS A QUICK AND EASY RECIPE FOR TEMPEH?

I tried this quick stir-fried tempeh on a recent trip to Bali, where I undertook a food tour in a mountain village in north-west Bali. We cooked it along with five other traditional dishes, which we then enjoyed as a buffet lunch.

200g tempeh
400 ml coconut oil
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 finely sliced small chilli
2 tablespoons palm or brown sugar
2 cloves crushed garlic
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground pepper
pinch of shrimp paste or dash of fish sauce

1. Cut the tempeh into thin batons, then deep-fry it in the coconut oil until crispy and lightly golden.  Remove and drain on paper towels.

2. Using a pestle and mortar, crush together the turmeric, chilli, palm or brown sugar, crushed garlic, salt, pepper and shrimp paste or fish sauce.

3. Heat a frying pan and lightly fry the crushed mixture until golden brown. Add the tempeh and toss through until well coated.

4. Serve alongside stir-fried or steamed vegetables and steamed rice.

Professional chef, food writer and food stylist Tracey Sunderland is a member of the New Zealand Guild of Food Writers.

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