I’ve never been to Indonesia, but I’m fast becoming a fan of one of its traditional foods: tempeh, the fermented soybean “cake” that has long been a favorite among vegetarians east and west. Tempeh is a little mysterious, and possibly even intimidating if you haven’t worked with it before, but there’s nothing to fear, because it’s pretty easy to use and wonderfully versatile.
What it has going for it are a nutty, almost mushroomy flavor and a firm, truly fabulous texture. Oh, and there are the nutritional benefits, too: It’s packed with protein, and the fermentation makes it a particularly easy-to-digest form of soy.
I usually buy Lifelight brand, because it’s widely available. Lifelight makes several varieties, adding a few grains and vegetables to the soybean base (it even sells one marinated in smoky-flavored ingredients, an attempt to approximate bacon), but I prefer the original, all-soy version for the most versatility.
How to cook it? Well, various recipes call for you to brine it, boil it, steam it, crumble it into stews and sauces, grill it, bake it and more, but I have to say that so far, I’m most enamored of pan-frying it, getting it crispy on the outside but leaving it soft and moist within. After frying I like to add a sauce that will bubble up and glaze the tempeh. It’s very porous, so it can soak up a lot of oil in the pan-frying if you let it, but that means it also soaks up any kind of flavorful sauce that you pour in after it’s browned. Use something that has a little sugar in it, and it'll get nice and sticky.
But that’s not the only way to go, even when glazing. After making it recently with a honey-mustard sauce, I tried subbing miso for the honey. The glaze isn’t sticky so much as thick and soft, but it still has that sweet-and-sour combination I love, and the miso — yet another form of fermented soy — goes so perfectly with tempeh that now I can’t imagine doing it any other way. Until, of course, I stumble on something else.