gather and grow

Homegrown, hand-spun living in the city

I love to notice how cultured foods tend to retain their indigenous names even as they travel around the world and find their way into new kitchens far from their land of origin. Reading through a fermentation book is like reading a travel guide, with one exotic-sounding name after the other: kvass, kombucha, kefir, tempeh, kimchi, sauerkraut, labneh, idli, dosa, tongba, miso… or how about gv-no-he-nv? In most cases, when adopting these cultured foods, other cultures have simply kept the original name, no matter how awkward-sounding. Why? Because each name designates a specific, unique strand or type of fermented food. And each name tells a story about where it comes from. Tibetan tara is similar to, but different from, the kefir that originates from the Central Asian Caucasus. Finnish viili is quite unique in comparison with what we call by the Turkish name yogurt. If we were to call all of them “cultured milk,” all those unique flavors and textures would be lost in translation.

So also tempeh — originally from Java, Indonesia — has become a part of both the cultural palate and the vocabulary here in North America. In our (mostly vegetarian) household, we eat it probably at least once every two weeks. But I haven’t ever made it myself before. Reading Sandor Katz rave about how fresh, home-made tempeh tastes so much better than the store-bought kind wrapped in plastic got me curious… And here it is:tempeh5I think of tempeh-making as having three parts. The first, de-hulling the soybeans, is the most labor-intensive. The second, the actual mixing of the soybeans with the tempeh spores, is super quick and easy. The third part, the incubation, is the trickiest because it requires a very specific temperature range and needs to be closely monitored.

tempeh1De-hulling the beans is necessary for the tempeh mold to grow properly. It can be done either by cracking the beans in a grain mill, or soaking and then gently rubbing and kneading them until the hulls come off. I did the latter and although it took me a good while (mostly because I was still figuring out how best to do this), I felt that I was getting to really know my soybeans.

Towel-drying the beans after cooking them for an hour felt equally intimate. Then, you simply mix in some vinegar (to acidify them) and the tempeh starter (mine came from Cultures for Health), and pack the entire mix into a large, perforated ziploc bag.

Now comes the interesting part: incubating the tempeh at a tempeh-rature (sorry, I couldn’t resist) of 85-91 F, but ideally even more strictly at 88 F, for roughly 24-48 hours. The proper temperature is critical. I can’t maintain such low temperatures either with my oven or with my food dehydrator, so I turned a plastic cooler into an incubator by placing mason jars filled with warm to hot water in there to maintain the heat, checking the temperature frequently, and removing/adding jars as necessary.tempeh2For the first day, nothing was happening. I was already about to give up when I noticed the hairy white mold beginning to form in the spaces between the soybeans. Gradually it grew dense enough to hold the beans together as one cohesive loaf. The entire process took almost two and a half days, but at the end of it, I had tempeh. Definitely the high point of Fermentation February so far!tempeh4

14 thoughts on “Fermentation February: My first tempeh!

  1. Recombinant DNA says:

    This is great! Will have to try this myself some day. How does it taste?

    1. Mari says:

      It has a mild, nutty flavor and a bit of a mushroomy aroma to it. We’re presently marinating it for dinner and eager to find out how it turns out!

  2. Rebecca says:

    Awesome! I love tempeh but never considered making it at home. I just ordered cultures for sourdough bread and yogurt so this will be next on my list to try!

  3. Tom says:

    When will you let us from overseas begin ordering some of your delicious food? 🙂

    1. Mari says:

      Well maybe I’ll have to come visit you and we’ll make it together!

  4. Linne says:

    Reblogged this on A Random Harvest and commented:
    More fermenting for your kitchens . . . ~ Linne

  5. Wow! I am flabbergasted! I did quite a few things myself but tempeh seemed to be something out of my league.
    I admire your courage & determination even after reading your post I wouldn’t know where to start as the ingredients required are not available where I live.
    I nevertheless had a delight reading your adventure 🙂

    1. Mari says:

      Hi, and thanks for stopping by! I don’t know where you live, but are you sure you won’t be able to find the ingredients? Plain, uncooked soybeans can be found in lots of places. Other than that, you just need a bit of vinegar plus the tempeh starter, which you can order from I imagine they ship outside the US too, if that’s where you are. That’s all you need to make tempeh.

      1. I appreciate the link you have given me, to tell you the truth I never had the guts to undertake this “project” but your post makes it seem still possible 🙂
        Is your recipe faithful to the macrobiotic traditional recipe? I am only asking because that is what I buy & use on a regular basis…

      2. Mari says:

        Hmm, I’m not an expert on macrobiotic diets, but my sense is that bean products like tempeh and tofu pretty much always count as macrobiotic.

      3. Sorry, I probably wasn’t clear, I meant is it done (processed) in the ancient traditional Japanese way ( the principal of Macrobiotic is going back to their Japanese way and philosophies of cooking)

      4. Mari says:

        The method I followed actually comes from Indonesia. In its basic outlines, it’s traditional, except that I wrapped the tempeh in a ziploc bag since I don’t have the banana leaves used traditionally, and used a plastic cooler as an incubator since we don’t have an Indonesian climate here in February!

      5. Thanks a whole lot & much appreciation 🙂

  6. johnlennon10 says:

    Wonderful snow white tempeh.

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