What is Tempeh

Tempeh:  Tempeh is traditionally a fermented soy food that originated in Indonesia, and is fermented with the mold Rhizopus oligosporus. Fermentation of tempeh can involve a period of several days or longer, and fermentation is usually carried out at temperatures of 85-90°F/29-32°C. 

Tempeh is usually purchased in a cake-like form, either frozen or fresh, and can be sliced in a way that is similar to tofu.  Generally speaking, tempeh that is unpasteurized is sold frozen to prevent it from going off quickly, and tempeh that has been pasteurized is sold in the refrigerated section. However, tempeh usually has a less watery texture than tofu, and in comparison to non-fermented tofu, a more distinct flavor as well. Steaming, baking, and frying are all popular ways of preparing tempeh in many countries. Tempeh is also commonly incorporated into stews, soups, and grilled kebabs.

When working with tempeh, it is always best to steam or simmer a little bit before cooking it.  I like to use a simple mixture of water with tamari and some garlic, but just plain water and salt will work.  In a pinch, you can also just steam the tempeh in a steamer basket.   This step of steaming the tempeh is important to not only soften it, but also to help remove any of the bitterness that tempeh can have. 

I love making my Tempeh Bacon because it is the perfect example of injecting as much flavour as possible into the middle of the tempeh and then making it crispy. 


Tempeh is one of the few soy foods not originating in China, Japan, or Korea. Instead, tempeh is believed to have first been prepared on the island of Java in Indonesia, at least hundreds of years ago. However, less is known about the exact origins of tempeh than other soy foods. We do know that trade between Indonesia and China was well underway as early as 1000 AD and that soybeans may have been a part of those trading practices. We also know that a fermentation process used for coconut was already being practiced in China and that this process may have been adapted for use with soybeans. Whatever the exact origins of tempeh, it would not have been uncommon for individuals in Java, China, Japan, or Korea to think about food preparation in terms of fermentation. Fermented foods had become a well-established part of Asian cuisines for several thousand years, and it’s probably most sensible to think about tempeh as a logical part of this fermented food tradition.

How to Select and Store

For many years it was only possible to find tempeh in natural foods and Asian stores. Yet, with the growing demand for soy foods, tempeh is now becoming more and more available in supermarkets throughout the country. Depending upon the store, tempeh may either be kept in the refrigerated or freezer section.

In a well-stocked natural foods supermarket, you’ll find tempeh in a variety of forms. Some of these forms are pre-cooked and ready-to eat, indicating so on the package. Other forms are not yet cooked and should be cooked before eating. You’ll find plain soy tempeh that has been made from soy and Rhizopus mold but without the addition of any grains, and you will also find tempeh made from soy-grain combinations, especially soy-rice. The tempeh you find in the supermarket may also have been flavored with other seasonings.

Look for tempeh that is covered with a thin whitish bloom. While it may have a few black or grayish spots, it should have no evidence of pink, yellow, or blue coloration as this indicates that it has become overly fermented. In general, choose tempeh in which the soybeans and grains appear tightly bound. Also choose tempeh that tends to have a drier outside surface. High-quality, plain soy tempeh often has an aroma that would best be described as mushroom-like.

Uncooked, refrigerated tempeh can keep in the refrigerator for up to ten days. If you do not prepare the whole package of uncooked tempeh at one time, wrap it well and place it back in the refrigerator. Uncooked tempeh will also keep fresh for several months in the freezer. If you freeze tempeh and then unthaw it, you can keep the thawed tempeh in your refrigerator for about 10 days. Also, if you are purchasing tempeh from a refrigerated display in the supermarket, check the package for a “sell by” date. It should have one, and you should make sure that it’s up ahead in the calendar.

How to Enjoy

 A Few Quick Serving Ideas for Tempeh

For a twist on the traditional Reuben sandwich, place broiled tempeh on a slice of whole grain bread, layer with sauerkraut, top with non-dairy cheese and then broil in oven for a few minutes until the sandwich is hot and toasty. Top with Russian dressing made by combining ketchup, mayonnaise and pickled and enjoy

 Cut tempeh into cubes after steamed, lightly pan fry and add to your favorite soup or stew

 A vegan option to spaghetti and meat sauce is spaghetti and tempeh sauce. Just substitute finely chopped tempeh for ground beef in your favorite recipe.

Check out my tempeh e-book here for some of my all-time favourite Tempeh recipes!

From one Plant Addict to another,

Doug McNish

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