Meat is a crucial part of our diet… or so we have all been brought up to believe. In many cultures around the world, meat is a central part of the traditional diet. However, as we become more environmentally aware and nutritionally conscious we have begun to realize that meat might not be as crucial as we have always thought.
The meat industry has one of the largest carbon footprints out of any internationally recognized industry in the world. This is partly due to the industry’s international transport and shipping methods as well as to the mass industrial scale in which we raise and process animals and livestock that are later butchered and served on our dinner tables. There are many arguments as to why we should question whether the daily consumption of meat is a good thing for our bodies and our planet. Animal rights activists adhere to the belief that animals are living beings on this earth and should be respected as such instead of simply using them as an item which we consume in order to survive. Others avoid meat simply because they believe there are other healthier and/or cheaper food alternatives. Regardless of your opinion on the humane treatment and care of animals and the philosophical, medical and moral issues around consuming them, meat is not the only source of high concentrate protein available to the general public. One example of a highly protein rich alternative is the nutrient dense, fermented soybean product known as Tempeh.
Tempeh is a traditional Indonesian food that is commonly made out of fermented soybeans, however other grains and beans can be used to make a similar although slightly less protein rich product. Originating from central and east Java, the capitol island of Indonesia, Tempeh is becoming a global phenomenon that is slowly changing the way we view foods such a meat and other animal products. Many people who have adapted a vegan or vegetarian diet are quite accustomed to the product as a main source of protein. Tempeh naturally has a strong earthy and nutty flavor, which becomes more pronounced with age, however it absorbs other flavors and marinades effortlessly, making it a product that can easily satisfy even the most pickiest of eaters. It also maintains its shape through most cooking processes, making it a highly versatile meat replacement in almost any dish
Although plant based, Tempeh holds 15 grams of protein in a 3 ounce (84 gram) serving, along with many other nutrients and vitamins. It is high in protein, minerals, vitamins, and dietary fiber while at the same time being low in sodium and carbohydrates. These attributes have made Tempeh not only popular in the vegetarian and vegan communities but also for individuals who are particularly health and or body conscious. Many personal trainers and body builders recommend Tempeh as a permanent or semi-permanent replacement to meat since it provides you with all your needed protein and many vitamins with little to no extra fat. The basic nutrition facts for a 3 ounce (84 gram) serving of tempeh according to the international Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) is as follows:
- Calories: 162
- Protein: 15g
- Carbohydrates: 9g
- Total fat: 9g
- Sodium: 9 milligrams
- Iron: 12% RDI
- Calcium: 9% RDI
- Riboflavin: 18% RDI
- Niacin: 12% RDI
- Magnesium: 18% RDI
- Phosphorus: 21% RDI
- Manganese: 54% RDI
Due to the compact and dense nature of Tempeh, Tempeh provides more protein than most other vegetarian alternatives. For example, in 3 ounces (84 grams) of Tofu there are only 6 grams of protein, only 40% of the protein found in the same amount of Tempeh.
As well as being protein rich, Tempeh is also a good dairy free source of calcium. In one cup (166 grams) of Tempeh there is about 2/3 the amount of calcium found in one cup of whole milk. Protein and calcium are two nutrients that many people observing vegetarian and or vegan diets struggle to consume and find replacements for. Tempeh ensures that all these needed nutrient requirements are met in an environmentally friendly and physically healthy way.
Another beneficial attribute of Tempeh is that it is created through a period of fermentation that last for 2-3 days. Fermentation, the process in which sugars are broken down by added yeast or bacteria, is a form of food production that infuses food items with beneficial probiotics (good bacteria that live in your gut and promote digestive health). These can aid your body in everything from promoting good digestion to preventing diarrhea and reducing stomach bloating. Probiotics are also associated with the improvement of immunity functions and blood cholesterol levels. When soybeans are fermented the phytic-acid found in soybeans breaks down which helps to improve the digestion and absorption of the large amount of protein and other nutrients found in Tempeh when ingested in your stomach and intestines. Along with being a fermented food packed with probiotics, the natural soybeans within Tempeh also contain isoflavones, which like probiotics, are associated with reduction in cholesterol levels. Isoflavones could also possess antioxidant properties which could be beneficial in decreasing oxidative stress and chronic diseases, however very little sound research has been down on this subject to date.
The process in which Tempeh is made is fascinating. After soaking whole soybeans overnight and deshelling each one by passing them through a special kind of press and strainer, the beans are then partially cooked. . After many hours of boiling, the soybeans are spread into a thin layer on long tables and cooled by fans. Once cooled the bacteria or fungus used to ferment the beans is mixed in. This is a fungus naturally found on the underside of banana leaves in Indonesia but it can also be bought and ordered online or from large manufacturers of the product. The fungus, also known as a yeast, that is used to ferment and bind the soybeans into Tempeh is called Rhizopus Oligosprous otherwise known by its marketed name: Tempeh starter. This fungus is a filamentous fungus that can be easily cultivated if left in a dark room with a natural airflow at a temperature of 30C (86F). After cooling the soybeans and mixing in the bacteria, the mixed soybeans are placed into small plastic bags and left to sit in a dark room with the appropriate temperature condition needed to cultivate the bacteria for 2-3 days. Within this period a white mold grows around the soybeans binding them into the protein packed mass we know to be Tempeh. The PH level of the tempeh at this stage should be maintained between 3 and 5. This is ensured by adding mild acidulates such as vinegar, lactic acid, or acetic acid. This PH balance promotes the growth of the good white mold or mescaline while restricting the growth of spoilage microorganisms.
Tempeh, while not necessarily tricky to make, is a timely process in which precision and attention to the surrounding environment is crucial. Due to the foods exotic origin and its unique manufacturing process, it is very hard to find manufacturers of Tempeh that exist outside of Indonesia. However, since I was lucky enough to be in Indonesia, specifically Bali, at the time of writing this article I had the incredible opportunity to not only observe the Tempeh making process first hand but also talk to a family owned business that has been making Tempeh for generations. Not only does this small business observe and use traditional Tempeh making techniques — excluding the use of the banana leaves due to government sanctioned sanitation regulations — they also pride themselves in being one of the only environmentally aware and friendly Tempeh producers in central, southeast Bali.
I arrived at the home of the Bahels at 9am Saturday morning and was greeted by Agus Bahel, the oldest son and current manager and supervisor of the family’s business. After an exchange of greetings, he led me through the family’s courtyard, passed the family temple and out back to a small warehouse that had been retrofitted by the family to produce Tempeh. Inside the small warehouse, Agus explained that as the oldest of his three other siblings he had inherited the title of business owner after his father had retired, “But we all help out” he explained. “My other brother is a dentist and one of my sisters is still studying in school while the other works in a shop. We all have other jobs. I work in the public health organization when I’m not here as well.” Agus’s experience in the field of public health is what inspired him to make the family business completely sustainable and environmentally friendly. “I specifically work in public health and waste disposal,” he went on to reveal. “I have seen the sites of many of the other Tempeh makers and the biggest issue I find with them is how they get rid of their used water. Very often you will see them pouring the dirty water used to boil and soak the soybeans into the streets or nearby rivers. This makes me very angry because we at the public health office work very hard to maintain the proper sanitary levels needed for healthy public streets, as well as work hard to protect the land, natural rivers, and streams all over our island. Companies and businesses that don’t properly dispose of used water are making our job harder as well as making the streets unsanitary for the general public and are harming the environment.”
Water safety throughout Indonesia is a huge problem that sadly is only growing due to the amount of tourism and pollution that frequently come hand in hand. Along with not disposing of dirty water properly Agus explained that many other businesses use tap or well water to soak and boil their soybeans. “We are taught from a very young age that it is not safe to drink tap water in Bali, however many people don’t listen and end up okay because they have built up an immunity to the things that make the water unsafe for most other people. Many people, because it doesn’t affect them as badly as others, don’t see the importance or point of paying for specially filtered water and just use whatever water they can find to treat and boil the soybeans. Here at our business we are very careful and make a point of using filtered and safe drinking water throughout the whole Tempeh making process.”
Agus and his family are a great example of a sustainable yet traditional Tempeh manufacturer. They recognize where they came from and the traditions they are upholding through the traditional production of Tempeh, while also showing their allegiance and respect for their homeland and island through their treatment and awareness of the environment and its needs. Due to his position in the public health department of Bali, Agus has gone to special measures to ensure that all dirty water is collected and stored safely before being picked up by large sanitation trucks and taken to the proper facility in which it is disposed. However, the family’s environmental efforts don’t stop there.
During the Tempeh making process the family collects all the byproducts from the shelled and boiled soybeans, specifically the soybeans husk, and package that up as well in order to sell it as feed for farmers’ livestock. They make sure every bit of the soybean is utilized and nothing is thrown away that could have been used for another purpose. While the process as a whole is very time-consuming and not necessarily all that profitable (each pack of Tempeh costs between 100-150,000 Indonesian Rupee about 7-10$) and the family produces about 1,200 packs every other day, the Bahel family directs much of its scant resources into ensuring that the business remains environmentally friendly and conscious.
Tempeh has shown itself to be a handy source of protein and nutrients for anyone trying to eat clean and healthily as well as cheaply. While less popular in the United States, the fermented brick of soybeans has shown itself to be a growing phenomenon throughout Asia and parts of Europe. If you’re interested in trying some Tempeh first hand then Agus and the Bahel family would be more than happy to help and would love to ship you some freshly made Tempeh produced using the traditional Javanese methods. For more information regarding his business and product feel free to simply reach out to him and ask, and either way I’d personally recommend trying some Tempeh when ever given the chance.