By KD Angle-Traegner / Last Update: October 2019
Although tempeh goes back ages in Indonesia, many people are still have never heard of the earthy mushroom plant protein that is a staple for vegans everywhere.
Like tofu, tempeh comes from soybeans but with a much different nutritional and textural qualities. It’s a fermented soy product; a cultured cake of soybeans and grains made by a culturing and controlled fermentation process that binds the soybeans into a very firm cake.
Other types of tempeh use barley, flax, oats, brown rice, or other grains.
The fermentation process and its retention of the whole bean give tempeh a higher protein content, dietary fiber, and vitamins compared to other soy foods like tofu, as well as a much firmer texture.
Because of this firm texture, tempeh is perfect for grilling and frying. This high-protein plant food makes perfect sandwich fillings, crumbled into soups or chili, or even as a tasty smoky, salty vegan bacon. Delicious possibilities are limitless.
Here’s everything you need to know.
Where Does Tempeh Come From?
Tempeh originated in Indonesia where it could be considered the oldest food technology in the history of the Javanese people.
The book Serat Centhini — a twelve-volume compilation of Javanese tales and teachings written in 1814 — mentions it, indicating that tempeh had been produced and eaten by the time of its publication.
Food historians believe tempeh may have come by the Chinese who were making a similar product, soybean koji; soybeans fermented with Aspergillus molds. The Rhizopus starter that tempeh uses could have been due to its better adaptation to the Indonesian climate.
In Europe, this versatile plant protein came by way of the Dutch who once colonized Indonesia.
Here in the US, it’s only been known since 1955 when it appeared in Possible Sources of Proteins for Child Feeding in Underdeveloped Countries published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
How Is Tempeh Made?
The traditional process begins with cracking whole dried soybeans with a grain mill.
Next, the beans are soaked overnight and dehulled to remove the outer covering. After they’re drained and rinsed, the soybeans are placed in a large pot to cook until tender.
Once they’re cool, it’s time to inoculate the soybeans with the Rhizopus oligosprorusstarter.
When complete, the inoculated soybeans incubate for 24 – 48 hours. This time allows the fermentation process to take place and a thick layer of white mycelium mold binds the soybeans into a firm cake.
Don’t worry, the mold (Rhizophus) that is used is considered GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Actually, foods fermented with Rhizophus can be beneficial. The species have been used as a detoxifying agent against food toxins and increase the digestibility of certain legumes. (1, 2)
Finally, the finished fermented cakes are steamed, packaged, and refrigerated ready for a variety of cooking methods.
Tempeh Is Made From Soy
Tempeh is a soy product so let’s talk soy and our health.
- B vitamins
Soy also contains fiber, omega-3, and omega-6 fatty acids, and is an excellent source of protein.
Not too shabby, nutritionally speaking. But don’t take my word for it, I’m not a dietitian. That’s why I turned to an expert on vegan nutrition, Anya Todd MS, RD, LD.
According to Todd, the nutrition in soy foods can vary among different preparations, so she recommends consuming whole soy foods like tempeh to guarantee the highest amount per serving.
“Soy is perfectly healthy in moderation. Two to three servings of whole soy foods a day is a safe recommendation.”
But what about those other scary soy articles about soy isoflavones, cancer, and genetically modified soy?
Glad you asked.
Soybeans contain phytoestrogens called isoflavones.
Some people claim that these soy isoflavones act like the female sex hormone estrogen in the body and can potentially increase the risk of cancers — especially breast cancer — as well as reduce the testosterone levels in men.
But concerns about adverse effects are not supported by the clinical or epidemiologic literature available at the time of this writing.
Soy is one of the most researched foods — nearly 2,000 soy-related papers published annually — and based on the health benefits in these epidemiologic studies along with the benefits noted in clinical trials soy is not only safe to eat, but it’s also beneficial when eaten in moderation. (3, 4)
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
Some people will avoid tempeh because they are afraid to consume GMOs.
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism whose genetic material has been manipulated in a lab using genetic engineering techniques. Scientists alter genes using DNA from different species of living organisms like bacteria or viruses to get specific traits such as resistance to disease or tolerance of herbicides or pesticides. (5)
Soybeans are the second-largest crop grown in the US after corn, and they’re also one of the top genetically-modified crops. These numbers are significant because even if you’re not eating soy foods directly if you’re eating animals, you’re most likely still consuming soy.
Currently, 85 percent of all GMO soybeans end up in animal feed for farmed animals where it eventually ends up on your plate.
There are criticisms about the practice surrounding the bioengineering and the production of genetically modified organisms.
In more than 60 countries around the world, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the manufacture and sale of genetically modified organisms.
Here in the US, the government has approved the use of GMOs. (5)
When looking at soy tempeh, unless the product has a specific GMO-free label, then there’s a good chance it’s genetically modified. If you are concerned about consuming GMOs, look for organic tempeh or tempeh labeled explicitly as using non-GMO ingredients.
- Barry’s Tempeh
Products: Classic Soy, White Bean & Brown Rice (Soy-Free), Adzuki Bean & Brown Rice (Soy-Free)
- Henry’s Gourmet Tempeh
Products: Soy Original, Soy Basil, Soy Red Pepper, Soy Kasha, Soy Curry
- Impulse Foods Tempeh (UK)
Products: Organic Plain, Organic Herb & Garlic, Organic Hemp, Organic Sea Vegetables, Organic Smoky with Shoyu
Products: Organic Soy, Organic Flax, Organic Garden Veggie, Organic Three Grain, Organic Fakin’ Bacon
- Rhapsody Natural Foods
Products: Organic, BBQ, Teriyaki
Products: Soy, 5 Grain
- Surata Soyfoods
Product: Organic Multi-Grain
- Tempeh Girl Tempeh
Product: Original Soy
Products: Original Soy, Organic Five Grain, Sesame Garlic, Smoky Maple Bacon
Do you make a tempeh product that isn’t listed here? Contact me.
15-minute Tempeh Tuna Sandwiches / Photo: Your Daily Vegan
Recipes to Try
- Tempeh Fries with Wasabi-Dill Mayo
- Buffalo Tempeh Wraps
- Gochujang Tempeh + Blasted Broccoli
- The Ultimate Tempeh Chili
The Simple Veganista
- Vegan Tempeh Bulgogi
The Vegan 8 Korean
- Vegan Buffalo Tempeh Wings
Guy Gone Vegan
- Stir-Fried Tempeh
Adventures in Vegan Cooking
- Asian Orange Tempeh
- Vegan Tempeh & Veggie Lasagna
- Tempeh Marsala
Dianne’s Vegan Kitchen
- Baked BBQ Tempeh
The Vegan Chef
- Spicy Chipotle Tempeh Wraps
Fork and Beans
Truth in Advertising
I am committed to providing accurate information to the vegan community. Meticulously researched, the topic explored in this guide contains the knowledge available at the time of publishing. Reviews and updates happen when new material becomes available.
Please contact me if you find incorrect data.
- Varga, J., & Péteri, Z., & Tábori, K., & Téren J., & Vágvölgyi, C. (2005). Degradation of ochratoxin A and other mycotoxins by Rhizopus isolates. International Journal of Food Microbiology, Volume 99, Issue 3. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijfoodmicro.2004.10.034
- Marshall, A., & Fretzdorff, B., & Buening-Pfaue, H., & Betsche, T. (2007). Comparative effect of boiling and solid substrate fermentation using the tempeh fungus (Rhizopus oligosporus) on the flatulence potential of African yambean (Sphenstylis stenocarpa L) seeds. Food Chemistry, Volume 103, Issue 4. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2006.10.058
- Messina, M., & Messina, V. (2010). The Role of Soy in Vegetarian Diets. Nutrients, Volume 2, Issue 8. Retrieved from http://doi.org/10.3390/nu2080855
- Norris, J. (2010). Soy: What's the Harm? VeganHealth.org. Retrieved from http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/soy_wth
- Learn About GMOs. Non GMO Project. Retrieved from https://www.nongmoproject.org/gmo-facts/
- Todd, A. (2018). Personal Interview. Retrieved from http://www.anyatodd.com/
All photos via Thinkstock