The first installment of my Vegan Eats Project, featuring an adorable Aussie kiddo! -- Tempeh is a cultured soybean cake—but it's better than it sounds, I promise. The culturing process holds the beans together, adds flavor, and makes the soybeans more easily digestible by reducing their phytic acid content. Tempeh is a traditional Indonesian staple, but has made its way into the diets of health conscious and vegetarian people around the world.
I had the honor of living with an Australian family who makes tempeh from scratch, selling it fresh at local farmers markets. The master tempeh maker in the family is Sarala. She's only three, but clearly runs the show. She generously made the time to show me her recipe and share a bit of her philosophy on veganism.
Recipe: FRESH TEMPEH
- Soybeans, split if available (soy-free alternative: Garbanzo Beans)
- Apple Cider Vinegar
- Tempeh Culture, Rhizopus oligosporus
- Brown Rice Flour
- Banana Leaves, or Sealing "ziplock" Plastic Bags (4"x6")
Step 1: Crack and De-husk the Beans
With her large batches, Sarala uses a flour mill. It's adjusted so that it just splits the beans and loosens the husks without crushing the beans to powder.
If you're using whole beans they need to be cracked, as the culture won't penetrate the husk. You can skip this step entirely if you're using split garbanzo beans (aka, channa dal) or split soybeans (if you can find them). Assuming you don't have a modified flour mill, boil the soybeans partially (about 50-75% done), put them in a bag, and smash them with your feet in the bathtub—just enough to split them, not mush them.
Step 2: Cook the BeansAfter soaking the beans overnight in cold water, drain and replace the water, then bring them to a boil. The beans only need to be cooked until they're 90% done, or al dente—you don't want them mushy. Before bringing them to a boil, you can try to remove any remaining husks. Stir gently, let the beans sink, and scoop out the husks from the upper few inches of water.
Step 3: Adjust the pHMixing in just a tablespoon of vinegar per kilo of drained beans (~1.5 tsp/lb of beans) will shift the pH in favor of the tempeh culture (instead of undesirable bacteria).
Step 4: Dry the BeansUsing a hair dryer, while the strained beans are still hot, dry the beans until there are no wet marks on the bottom of the tray from your mixing spoon. Too much moisture will encourage bacteria. Again we're trying to make the beans a perfect environment for our tempeh culture to grow, but nothing else.
Step 5: Add the Tempeh CultureCheck your tempeh starter label for the exact amount of culture to use. Mix an equal amount of brown rice flour with the culture, sprinkle the mixture over the beans, and mix thoroughly.
Step 6: Form Your TempehThe traditional method, as Sarala is demonstrating for us, is to wrap the soybeans in banana leaves. (the fast/easy/cheap/ugly method is to just use a plastic bag) If you do use banana leaves, you'll have to pass them briefly over an open stovetop flame first. This kills any foreign bacteria that might interfere with your tempeh culture, and makes the leaves softer and a lot easier to work with.
Step 7: Ventilate Your TempehOnce wrapped, your tempeh needs oxygen to culture properly. If you don't have a bed of nails (you don't have a bed of nails??), just use a toothpick to poke the holes. For banana leaves a thick toothpick is a good size, at least 2-3 pricks per inch. For plastic bags you want smaller holes; try using a regular needle, with small pricks about every half inch.
Step 8: IncubationYour tempeh needs to be kept at around 85F/30C for about 24 hours. (If the temperature gets over 95F/35C the culture may die, if it is cool it will just take longer—which is not a problem as long as everything stays clean and it doesn't finish at 3 in the morning.) Because they make upwards of 100 blocks of tempeh at a time they've set up an ingenious DIY incubator using a fridge, a hair dryer, and a digital thermostat. But for home use you can use a simple cooler. Space out the tempeh, single-layer, on cooling racks so they get oxygen on all sides and don't overheat. Just put a hot water bottle in the bottom over night to keep it warm. Then in the morning (after about 12 hours), when the culture is active and producing its own heat, open the cooler lid to let it ventilate. When the tempeh is done fermenting the culture will have grown so dense that you won't be able to see through its fine white filaments. If it is still translucent and airy, revealing the beans below the surface, it needs to incubate further. Once it is white and opaque, with only the beans on the surface visible, throw the tempeh into the fridge to stop the culture from growing more. Remember, don't stack them in the fridge either, or they will continue producing their own heat!
Sarala on Veganism
Sarala has been vegan her entire (admittedly brief) life. Her mother gave her the choice when she was two, but with her kind little heart she didn't hesitate to make the animal-friendly choice. Despite the fact that her mom takes a gentle win-hearts-and-minds-with-delicious-food approach, Sarala has no filter when telling people why they shouldn't eat animals. There's a definite risk that she'll become one of those super-aggressive, self-righteous vegans when she's older, but for now it's just cute.
Asked why she doesn't eat meat she replied simply "I love those animals." And after explaining that baby cows are taken from their mums and killed to make cow milk (which is true), she continued "I love baby animals. I love baby cows. I love all baby animals. That's why I don't eat anything dairy." And as for eggs? You guessed it, "I love baby chickens!"
I asked what she thought of all the people out there who do eat meat, and cow milk, and eggs. In heart-melting fashion, she replied "I like them too. I love all people as well. I love all babies. I love human babies, I love animal babies, I love all babies. Baby sheep, baby geese..." This surprised me, considering that her proposed solution after hearing about the history of the Civil Rights movement in the US was to "kill all the white people." I guess her ethical framework is still developing, pretty impressive for a three year-old though!