The Salt
2:42 am
Mon April 1, 2013

Journey To Java's 'Tempeh Village': Where Soybean Cakes Are Born

Originally published on Fri April 5, 2013 6:50 am

For centuries, Asia has been home to sophisticated vegetarian cultures. In recent years, Americans have gradually discovered cooking with meat substitutes like tofu and an Indonesia soybean cake called tempeh.

Tempeh is known for being versatile. There's an almost endless variety of ways to cook it. My favorite is perhaps one of the simplest: Cut it into thin slices, cover it in spices and crushed coriander seeds, and pan-fry it in a little oil until it's golden brown.

In Indonesia — and particularly on the island of Java — tempeh is so basic to the daily diet, you could almost call it meat-and-potatoes fare. Well, minus the meat maybe.

It's made using a unique process of fermentation, and I was curious to see how that works, so I visited Kebun Jeruk village, in west Jakarta. It's a working-class neighborhood of simple, low-rise homes. The locals call it Tempeh Village.

Mr. Hendoko (who goes by just one name) is the manager of a cooperative here that provides roughly a third of Jakarta's tempeh.

"We have 1,417 tempeh-making households here, all under one cooperative," Hendoko says. "The cooperative produces nearly 2 tons of tempeh a day."

Hendoko says tempeh has been part of the local culture for centuries. "My world revolves around tempeh," he says. "I have tempeh every day. Even though there are other dishes, a meal just wouldn't feel the same without tempeh."

After walking through the village, we come to a communal kitchen where the beans are prepared and boiled. Men stripped to the waist are washing and husking the beans over big barrels.

It's a Dickensian scene of sweat, sinew and soybeans. It's also somewhat refreshing to find a product that, in an age of supermarkets and hermetic packaging, is still wrapped in banana leaves and sold in local bazaars.

Ironically, the soybeans in this quintessentially Indonesian food are imported from the U.S.

Hendoko says the beans are then taken from the kitchen back to the individual families that will make them into cakes of tempeh. "First, we mix the clean and split beans with some yeast," he explains. "Then we pack them into cakes. And we put the cakes on these drying racks to ferment for 18 hours."

He shows us a small brick made of cassava starch that's used to make the mold or fungus that causes the beans to ferment. It's what makes the beans stick together. It has no particular smell to it, and when I eat the tempeh, I don't think I taste it — only the smoky, nutty, mushroomy, meaty taste of the tempeh.

According to Hendoko, it's that fermentation that makes tempeh so healthy, and allows people to digest all those high-protein soybeans without ballooning up with gas.

Hendoko's daughter has found new outlets for the tempeh: She fries it up as crispy chips, reminiscent of Pringles, which she sells over the Internet.

Ultimately, he has sky-high expectations for his village's products: "I think that with government support and media promotion, in 20 years' time, tempeh will conquer the world."

Global domination by cakes of fermented soybeans, in two decades' time? Sounds like a tall order. Then again, a few decades back, who would have guessed that raw fish, wasabi and rice balls would catch on in the U.S.?

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This network sends foreign correspondents abroad to bring you the latest news of wars, coups, protests, and the economy. But often a better way to learn about a changing world is to sample the local cuisine. Which is what our correspondent Anthony Kuhn did in the capital of Indonesia. In that part of the world, vegetarian cultures are centuries old, built around foods like the Indonesian soybean cake called tempeh.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Tempeh is one of the most versatile foods and there's an almost endless variety of ways you can cook it. I myself actually prefer one of the simplest, which is just to coat it in spices and pan-fry it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MORTAR, PESTLE AND GRINDING)

KUHN: First, I'm going to take a stone mortar and pestle and grind up some coriander seeds and some garlic and salt. Then I just take the sliced pieces of tempeh and dip them in the spices, and then pan-fry them until they're golden brown.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIZZLING)

KUHN: I'm aware, of course, that in the U.S., tempeh has a reputation as hippie food, but here in Indonesia, and particularly on the island of Java, tempeh is so basic to the daily diet you could just about call it meat-and-potatoes fare - well, minus the meat maybe.

Tempeh is made using a unique process of fermentation. And I'm curious to see how that works, so I've come to a place locals call...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Tempeh Village. It's a working-class neighborhood of simple, low-rise homes. Our host is Mr. Hendoko, who goes by just one name.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)

HENDOKO: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: He's the manager of this cooperative that provides roughly a third of Jakarta's tempeh.

HENDOKO: (Through Translator) We have 1,417 tempeh-making households here. The cooperative produces nearly two tons of tempeh a day.

KUHN: Hendoko says tempeh has been a part of the local culture for centuries.

HENDOKO: (Through Translator) You cannot get bored with tempeh. You can eat it every day. It doesn't cause high blood pressure for you. It doesn't increase your cholesterol. It's very good.

KUHN: First, Mr. Hendoko takes us to see where they prepare the soybean.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING WATER)

KUHN: We've come to the communal kitchen where they prepare and boil the beans. It starts out with a bunch of barrels where they wash and then husk the soybeans.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING WATER)

KUHN: The villagers that are working here are stripped to the waist and sweating as they swash the beans around in these huge tubs full of water, next to these massive oil barrels with wood fires smoking underneath them.

(SOUNDBITE OF A ROARING FIRE)

KUHN: Mr. Hendoko says the beans are then taken from the kitchen back to the individual families that will make them into cakes of tempeh.

HENDOKO: (Through Translator) First, we mix the clean and split beans with some yeast. And then we pack them into cakes. And we put the cakes on these drying racks to ferment for 18 hours.

KUHN: Hendoko shows us a small brick of cassava starch. This is used to make the mold or fungus that causes the beans to ferment.

Let's check it out. No particular smell to it, but this is what makes the beans stick together. When I eat the tempeh, I don't believe I taste this. You taste the smoky, nutty, mushroomy, meaty taste of the tempeh.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)

KUHN: Hendoko says the fermentation is what makes tempeh so healthy, and allows you to digest all those high-protein soybeans without ballooning up with gas. Javanese have been eating it for centuries. Mr. Hendoko says he was raised on it.

HENDOKO: (Through Translator) We have to eat tempeh every day because if you don't - as if you don't eat meat that day.

KUHN: I'm hooked on it myself, you know?

HENDOKO: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Hendoko says his daughter makes the tempeh into crispy snacks, which she sells over the Internet. And he has sky-high expectations for his village's products.

HENDOKO: (Through Translator) I think that with government support, in 20 years' time, tempeh will conquer the world.

KUHN: Global domination by cakes of fermented soybeans in two decades' time? Then again, a few decades back, who would have guessed that raw fish, wasabi, and rice balls would catch on in the U.S.?

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jakarta.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's Morning Kitchen from NPR News.

(LAUGHTER) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.