In this series of interviews we feature local fermentation enthusiasts and makers to celebrate the diverse community of folks doing fermentation here in the Philippines. This series is not sponsored.
It was in Canggu, Indonesia, almost a decade ago when I first tasted tempeh. Many warungs, small local convenience stores and eateries, dotted the road leading in and out of the villa we rented. One in particular sold them deep fried, and we grew addicted to them during our stay.
What is tempeh? A staple source of protein in Indonesia, tempeh is fermented soybeans that come in bar or cake form, bound by the mycelial growth from the Rhizopus culture.
Tempeh is considered a good alternative to meat and a better protein source compared to tofu, another soybean product. Thanks to the fungus starter, the beans are bound together and remain intact, giving it higher protein and fiber content. The fermentation process also confers beneficial vitamins and reduces the phytic acid in the soybeans.
The tempeh we ate came wrapped in banana leaf with steamed rice, fresh cucumber, cabbage, Thai basil, and homemade sambal that the seller made on the spot. My friends and I happily devoured this dish daily–the earthy nuttiness of the tempeh, the mild sweetness and crunch of the fresh vegetables, the aromatic herb, and the spicy caramelization of the sambal. We lamented the day we would return to Manila, where it was difficult to find and what had become our go-to breakfast dish impossible to replicate.
Happily tempeh has become more accessible since then, although it remains a niche health food. It is known in vegan and vegetarian communities for its high protein and calcium content, a great substitute to meat and dairy.
In this interview we’re happy to talk about this underrated fermented bean cake with our favorite maker @tempe_dude. I met him online during the pandemic lockdown, and had a chance to cook tempeh bars that he regularly donated to the food relief kitchen I volunteered in.
Born in the Philippines but raised in Indonesia, @tempe_dude is a Manila-based tempeh enthusiast. He loves making fresh unpasteurized tempeh bars in small batches and enjoys sharing his love of the fermented soybean one Filipino at a time. He describes it as “a mushroom garden in a bed of beans”. Isn’t that a cool way to think of it?
When and how did you get into making tempeh?
My family opened up an Indonesian restaurant here in Manila called Warung Kapitolyo in 2015. We wanted to be as authentic as possible and we felt we needed to have soy tempeh on our menu. However, the quality of the tempeh here in Manila was not good and also very expensive, so we decided to make our own.
Why do you like making it?
I like making it because it’s rewarding to be able to share a little bit of Indonesia, my second home, to Filipinos.
What are its benefits?
Tempeh is a great source of plant-based protein. It improves cardiovascular health and it helps in bone growth. Because of the fermentation process, it is good for digestion as well. And most important of all, it’s delicious!
What’s the process like, and what are the most challenging and rewarding parts?
The process is quite simple. Soak, dehull, and cook the beans. Mix with the culture. Bag [the inoculated beans] and wait for the fermentation magic! The most rewarding part is waking up in the morning and seeing your legumes covered with the white mycelia. The most challenging part is maintaining the right environment for the mycelia to grow.
Using mold to ferment beans requires a trusted quality starter. I source my starter from Jakarta from a company called Raprima. They [have what is] are considered to be the #1 tempeh starter in the world.
What have you learned from making and selling tempeh in the Philippines/to Filipinos?
Since the climate here in the Philippines is similar to the climate in Indonesia, making tempeh in the Philippines posed no issue. However, selling it to Filipinos is quite difficult. First, most Filipinos have never heard of tempeh before. Second, those who have tried it here in the Philippines, did not have a good experience [because of the bad quality and it was expensive].
What have you learned working with local beans? Which one is your favorite and why?
In 2019, I began to experiment with local Filipino beans. Why? I just thought it was cool to make tempeh with different types of legumes. Each legume has unique characteristics, which gives it a different taste and texture once the fermentation process is finished. My favorite local legume is the white sitao also known as cowpea or black-eyed pea. The taste and texture makes it perfect in salads and pastas.
Why do you like eating tempeh? What’s your favorite way of cooking it or do you have a favorite recipe that you can share with us.
My favorite is called tempeh Mendoan (above left). It’s sliced tempeh, dipped in a special batter, and fried, then served with kecap manis and sambal.
Watch out for a few tempeh recipes on the website soon! In the meantime, you may get some tempeh from @tempe_dude by messaging him on his Instagram account. All images unless otherwise stated are from @tempe_dude.