I've long been a fan of tempeh. You can think of tempeh as tofu's sexier, healthier cousin. Tempeh is a wonderful bean food, made with cooked whole soybeans that have been inoculated with culture (Rhizophus Oryzae). This culture grows prolifically on the cooked beans, forming a solid mass (a cake, if you will) of beans connected with a network of rich mycelium or fungus. Not only does the culturing of the beans make them more digestible and improve the nutritional value of the beans, it creates a mega delicious and versatile product to use in your kitchen. In Indonesia, tempeh is made daily and comes wrapped in banana leaves, the white fuzz of mycelium thick and dense on the beans.
But the commercially available varieties differ pretty significantly from that traditional tempeh. I found out that the tempeh that is available to us commercially is actually pasteurized, which negates all the healthy benefits the comes from the culturing process. Though the protein, digestibility and texture is still there, you lose all the probiotic benefits through the pasteurization process. Confirmed by consumer emails from the companies, both Hain-Celestial tempeh (sold under Westsoy) and Lightlife brand are pasteurized after culturing. These brands are pasteurized to give them a longer shelf life for long hauls across the country and for longer term storage. But it also means we're missing out on all the vital, living energy that has been cultivated for us.
The solution? Find local, artisanal tempeh or learn to make your own. Tempeh can be made from a variety of beans, including adzuki, black bean, chickpeas or mung beans. Tempeh cultures are available online from a variety of sources. Here’s one brand, from Cultures for Health, that seems to be pretty easy to use is available online (but check with your local health food store first!).
But there are tempeh renegades around the US making their own tempeh and keeping it truly alive! I found companies in Brooklyn, Asheville, Hawaii, and Maine making tempeh from all sorts of beans, and selling it locally to keep all those vital cultures alive. Smiling Hara company in Asheville, North Carolina, makes some wild looking black bean and black-eyed pea tempeh. Lalibela Farm in Bowdoinham, Maine, makes black bean and cattle bean tempeh, and Barry's Tempeh in Brooklyn makes Adzuki Bean & Brown Rice and White Bean & Brown Rice. In Hawaii, in Life Foods (based in Maui), makes their tempeh with mung beans and spices for a uniquely delicious take on this classic vegetarian staple. These brands have limited availability because of their short term storage. But if you can get your hands on them– enjoy the true bounty of probiotics, nutrients and yum from these cultured beans. As a side note, I did find some research about some salmonella scares related to tempeh, so please note that all tempeh needs to be cooked before eating it! So what’s your favorite tempeh?
tempeh image from Mother Earth News.