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A Journey into Tempeh

A Journey into Tempeh

Auli Cinantya
06 June 2023


Celebrate National Tempeh Day by delving deeper into the essence of this humble dish that graces our daily lives.


Tempe, or Tempeh, is an Indonesian staple that can easily be found anywhere through the market, street vendors, mobile vegetable sellers, high-end supermarkets, and even your neighborhood Warteg. It is affordable, versatile, and flavorful, making it a humble food that many have deemed a superfood. But to us Indonesians, this delicacy is close to our hearts, something that I grew up with. It is an integral part of our culinary culture, cherished and consumed as a staple in our everyday diet.

Tempeh pronounced Tem-pay, is a traditional Indonesian food made by fermenting soybeans. The soybeans are transformed into a firm and chewy cake through a natural culturing and controlled fermentation process. Tempeh exhibits an earthy, nutty flavor with a delightful aroma when fried.

Embedded within Indonesia’s diverse culinary culture, tempeh lends itself to countless delicious dishes, including the timeless fried tempeh, Tempe Mendoan, Lodeh Tempe, and many more.

Regardless of background or location, people from all walks of life have embraced tempeh for its nourishing qualities and cost-effectiveness in their gastronomic endeavors.

Did you know that tempeh can be made from various ingredients besides soybeans?

National Tempeh Day

What is Tempeh?

Tempeh, derived from soybeans or other ingredients, undergoes a transformative fermentation process using Rhizopus sp. mold, commonly called tempeh starter or tempeh yeast. This mold plays a crucial role in breaking down complex compounds in the raw materials, making them more easily digestible.

As a result of fermentation, tempeh is a thin cake that can be sliced, crumbled, or cubed. The soybeans remain visible and are bound together by the fermentation process. While soy-based tempeh is the most common, it can also be crafted from various legumes or grains. Different variations, such as garbanzo, lentils, or black bean tempeh, are often indicated on the packaging.

Tempeh offers a distinctive taste profile characterized by its nutty, earthy, chewy, and savory qualities. These pronounced flavors are a result of the fermentation process, setting tempeh apart from the milder taste of plain tofu. With its use of whole soybeans, tempeh boasts a resilient texture. The resulting flavor is often described as unique, with prevalent earthy, savory, or nutty notes.

The History of Tempeh

Tempeh is believed to have originated on the island of Java several centuries ago, showcasing the ingenuity of the Javanese people. The earliest mention of tempeh can be found in the Serat Centini, a literary work likely written around A.D. 1815 by Rangga Sutrasna under the orders of Sunan Sugih, who later became Pakubuwana V of Surakarta in eastern Central Java. Within this classic piece of Modern Javanese literature is a line referring to “onions and uncooked témpé.”

In the early 2000s, tempeh was initially regarded as a lower-class food compared to protein sources like eggs, fish, and meat. However, over the past four decades, its status has undergone a remarkable transformation. It is now widely embraced as an affordable and nutritious alternative to meat, transcending socio-economic boundaries.

Tempeh as A Cultural Heritage

Originating from Central Java, tempeh is a unique soy-based food deeply ingrained in Javanese cuisine, setting it apart from its Chinese or Japanese counterparts.

Making tempeh is believed to be one of the oldest food techniques practiced by the Javanese community in Indonesia. In the Serat Centhini (a historical manuscript published in the 16th century), the word “tempe” is mentioned in the context of dishes like jae santen tempe (tempeh with coconut milk) and kadhele tempe srundengan, indicating that this traditional food has long been recognized and integrated into the culinary culture of the Javanese people, particularly in Yogyakarta and Surakarta.

It is often savored during various festive occasions and ceremonies. In social gatherings like kenduri or selamatan in rural areas, tempeh takes on a sacred role, symbolizing gratitude for the cycle of life in accordance with local beliefs and customs.

Various Tempeh in Indonesia

Most tempeh producers in Indonesia are small-scale and adhere to traditional tempeh-making methods. In addition to soybeans, various types of tempeh are made from different ingredients. The diversity of grains in Indonesia provides abundant choices for tempeh production.

While soy-based tempeh is the most well-known, a wide variety of raw materials are used to make tempeh in Indonesia!

Tempeh Koro Benguk and Tempeh Koro Pedang
Tempeh koro benguk is a specialty from Kulonprogo, Yogyakarta. Both beans, koro benguk, and koro pedang, are larger than soybeans. These local legumes come in various varieties and are commonly used as raw materials for tempeh production.

Tempeh Menjes
The unique tempeh from Malang is created by fermenting tofu and tempeh residue, which is then compressed into a shape resembling regular tempeh, with two distinct varieties: Menjes Kacang, crafted from black soybeans or tempeh residue, and Menjes Gombal, made from tofu residue. This tempeh variant resembles the renowned tempeh gembus in Central Java and Yogyakarta regions.

Tempeh Gembus or Menjos
Tempeh gembus is made from tofu residue, offering a savory taste and a soft texture. This tempeh should be consumed at least 28 hours after the production process is complete. It is commonly fried or cooked with vegetables and chili.

Tempeh Kecipir
In the region of Tulungagung, East Java, many people utilize kecipir beans as the raw material for making tempeh, with the production process being not much different from soybean tempeh. However, before being processed into tempeh, these kecipir beans must be boiled for a considerable amount of time to achieve a soft texture.

Tempeh embodies a beautiful story of cultural heritage and preservation. Despite its humble and unpretentious nature, it holds a special place in the hearts of many Indonesians. Throughout the years, tempeh has evolved and gained popularity, finding its way into various modern dishes, including salads, grilled preparations, and even desserts like tempeh cake.

However, amidst all these innovations, a simple stir-fried tempeh dish, generously coated in sweet soy sauce and accompanied by slices of red chilies, remains a cherished classic for me. It serves as a reminder of the deep-rooted connection between tempeh and Indonesian culinary traditions. Whether enjoyed in its traditional form or explored in new culinary adventures, tempeh remains a beloved ingredient that enriches our meals and preserves our cultural heritage.

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