Tempeh might be a fairly new kid on the block in the UK market but it actually has a long history. Tempeh was discovered in Java, in Indonesia, over 300 years ago so it sure has been around for quite some time! But do you know how tempeh is perceived, sold, or eaten in Indonesia? To get answers to all these questions and more, we turned to our co-founder and food scientist extraordinaire Driando (aka Ando) who grew up in Indonesia and who is just in the process of finishing his PhD on, you guessed it: tempeh! We’re so grateful and proud of our connection to Indonesia, the home of tempeh, and we can’t thank our Indonesian food science team Ando, Elvira and Lidwina enough for all the amazing tempeh knowledge and insights they keep providing us with. But now, read on to learn more about tempeh and Ando’s fascination with it!
What is your first memory of tempeh?
My first memory of tempeh is myself standing on my toes (because I was not tall enough) to reach a plate on my dining table in Bogor, Indonesia, to grab some thinly sliced fried tempeh. I did this multiple times a day, eating tempeh as a regular snack. I remembered my mom saying, “People say tempeh is good for preventing cancer.” -- and now I’m doing research about just that - wild, right?
If not that one, it would be walking barefoot outside my house, to browse some groceries on a pushed cart (“tukang sayur”). That was when I saw and smelt blocks of fresh tempeh wrapped in banana leaves. I still remember the smell right now.
What is your favourite way to eat tempeh / favourite tempeh dish?
Fried tempeh :) By itself is enough!
What would you say is the most authentic / common / popular tempeh dish in Indonesia?
I would say the most popular tempeh dish is fried tempeh / “tempe goreng”.
There is no standard for being authentic actually, since foods and recipes evolve as the society does (just give it a try: what is authentic? The first one? The most common one? Tempehs made by Indonesians?). What we know is that the first tempeh dish documented in history is sambal tumpang - the coconut-based curry dish.
How is tempeh typically sold in Indonesia?
It is typically sold fresh and wrapped in banana leaves like in the pictures above, in a pushed-cart “tukang sayur” (translates to “vegetable seller”) or traditional market. More recently, plastic wrapped tempeh products have started selling in supermarkets.
In general, how is tempeh perceived in Indonesia? Is there anything you’d like to change about that?
Tempeh is very much seen as a “food of the poor” in Indonesia, and isn’t particularly celebrated or highly regarded. I would very much like to change this perception, especially with all the scientific knowledge I now have that tempeh is one of the world’s most affordable, nutritious, and sustainable foods.
What inspired you to start doing (food science) research on tempeh?
During my undergraduate years, I was obsessed with bodybuilding. I experimented with many sources of protein, but I did not feel good after constantly eating meat, eggs, and whey protein. So, as a biotechnology major, I looked up scientific papers online and found that tempeh is high in protein, fiber, and minerals, as well as low in fat, sugar, and salt. The more I dug into the literature around tempeh, the more amazing things I learned, especially that tempeh contains bioactive compounds that can prevent the occurrence of chronic diseases. Since the University of Massachusetts Amherst has very strong food science doctoral research programmes on bioactive compounds, I wanted to cherish my time here to do sound scientific research investigating the content and activities of tempeh’s bioactive compounds.
At what point did you realise that you want to start spreading the tempeh love around Indonesia and beyond, in the form of Indonesian Tempe Movement and Better Nature?
In 2015 and 2016 I went to Sawinggrai Village, on an island in Raja Ampat Islands, in the Eastern part of Indonesia. I made friends with local children whom I played soccer with, swam with, and watched The Birds of Paradise with at their habitat. One boy named Edi caught my attention for his maturity to lead his friends, including sharing foods equally. I thought, “If I could support or inspire children like Edi in many parts in Indonesia and the world, maybe the world would be a better place?”. When I came to think that some, if not most, of them were protein -deficient or -malnourished, the thought made me cry. To me, as someone who knew about tempeh’s potential, it didn’t make sense to see this happening to them as fellow Indonesians who could eat tempeh if only they knew more about it. Since then, I promised myself that I would work very hard to bring the benefits of tempeh to those in most need in the world. I promised myself that if I cannot save this generation, I hope the next one can be saved, or I could at least do something that inspires the next generations to save the next ones.
Indonesian Tempe Movement was a manifestation of countless collaborations with our “tempeh movers” to educate people that tempeh is cool and people should find out why: it’s tasty, Indonesian, nutritious, healthy, and sustainable. Better Nature was an extension of this, along with all of our team members’ desires to enjoy food the better way -- healthy, sustainable, and ethical, by celebrating the goodness of tempeh.
What fascinates you the most about tempeh?
If tempeh were a person, tempeh would be a humble, nice, and polite person with so many fascinating stories to tell and personalities that improve the lives of the people around it. How can I not like someone like that?
Tempeh is favorably simple: since 300 years ago it has always been a natural and wholesome food to make. But when we look into the science, tempeh fermentation is anything but simple - its fermentation process is truly incredible. It binds the beans together, increases the levels of protein and bioactive compounds, decreases the fat content, and so much more. Sometimes I think it must be too good to be true, but having read more than 60 years worth of tempeh research, I can assure you it really is.
When was the first time you made your own tempeh and how did it go?
I used to help my mom here and there, but before I left for the US in 2015, my mom taught me properly, saying, “This is a skill you need to have.”. So I made it based on my own improvisation upon her instruction, with a bit of scientist’s arrogance for knowing which steps I should pay attention to the most and at which step I could slack a little bit. Seeing how unstructured my method was, my mom said, “It seems like your beans will never turn into tempeh.” Since she had made tempeh so many times, I believed her, but at the same time I was curious if I could prove her wrong (yes, we have this funny mother-son competitiveness). The next day, nothing grew on my soybeans, just dews. The morning after, there were just more dews. However, that evening I saw spiky white hairs on my beans and the next morning my beans fully turned into tempeh. It smelled like legit tempeh -- that was when I knew I was ready to go to the US.
What would you like to see happen in the future in terms of tempeh?
I would like to see tempeh as a food of hope that many regions and cultures can benefit from. Tempeh can be made of almost any bean, grain, or legume. I imagine that a couple decades from now, each region around the world would have their own tempeh made from the ingredients most suitable for them: locally available and sustainable, great-tasting to their palates, versatile for their cooking styles, and nutritious in a way that fulfills their nutritional needs. It would probably be like the expansions of pizza from Italy to all corners of the world (when did that happen?!), but carrying the values of being healthy, sustainable, and accessible.
We hope you enjoyed this interview and that it taught you something new - we sure enjoyed Ando’s answers! How could you not love the thought of tiny Ando standing on his tippy toes to grab some fried tempeh?! So, let’s keep enjoying tasty tempeh in different forms and in delicious, plant-based dishes, whilst keeping in mind its origins and long history :)