Tempeh is unique among soyfoods in that it did not originate in China or Japan. It originated on the Island of Java in Indonesia prior to 1800, and maybe as long ago as a thousand years. Not much is known about the origins of this food except that it was part of a group of fermented foods that were developed by people with no scientific background in food sciences or fermentation. Tempeh was made not only on soybean substrates but on a variety of agricultural by-products such as peanut and coconut presscake and okara, or soy pulp, which is left over after the production of tofu.
Although, the earliest references in Indonesian literature were only in the early 1800s, tempeh is believed to have been developed long before that time due to the widespread geographical distribution of the product throughout Java and all of Indonesia. Tempeh is a major part of the cuisine of Indonesia where it is made by more than 40,000 cottage industry sized shops using very basic tools and open-air fermentation (2).
One argument has been advanced that tempeh originated some 2000 years ago, brought to Indonesia by Chinese traders who were at that time already fermenting soybean koji for their soy sauce. This technique could have been modified by local Indonesians to suit Javanese tastes and climate—Rhizopus is better adapted to the heat and humidity of the tropics than the Aspergillus oryzae used by the Chinese in their koji (2).
The first Westerners to study tempeh were two Dutch scientists, H.C. Prinsen Geerligs and F. A. Went, who were studying the utilization of sugar by-products from the Dutch sugar plantations in the late 1800s. Indonesia was a Dutch colony from the late 1600s through the 1960s, hence much of the early scientific work was done by the Dutch (2).
During World War II, a Dutch microbiologist, Van Veen, was held as a POW (prisoner of war) along with many American soldiers by the Japanese. Van Veen noted during postwar studies that tempeh was much easier to digest than plain cooked soybeans. He concluded that many POWs, especially those with dysentery and edema, owed their lives to tempeh, which gave them badly needed protein that they could easily assimilate (2).
The first American researcher to study tempeh was Dr. Clifford Hesseltine of the Northern Regional Research Center in Peoria, Illinois. There, Dr. Hesseltine concluded that the primary microorganism used to ferment tempeh was Rhizopus oligosporus and not Rhizophus oryzae as previously thought. He also developed a method of fermenting the tempeh in perforated plastic bags instead of the commonly used banana leaves. This bag method quickly became the most commonly used method of incubation in Indonesia and later on in North America as well (2).
In the 1970s, tempeh was first brought to the attention of the American public largely through the efforts of The Farm, a spiritual community of 1700 ''hippies'' in southern Tennessee. These people were total vegetarians (vegans) and lived off soybeans. In an attempt to find new ways of preparing soybeans, Alexander Lyons learned about tempeh after doing some research in the NIH libraries in Washington, DC. Alex Lyons, along with Cynthia Bates, developed a home tempeh starter kit with instructions and set up a small lab at The Farm to produce the necessary spores. This is where most of the tempeh pioneers— such as Seth Tibbott of Turtle Island Foods, Michael Cohen of Lightlife Foods, Steve
Demos of White Wave, and Jerimiah Ridenhour of Wildwood Natural Foods—learned about tempeh and its manufacturing techniques.
By the 1980s, tempeh was being touted as the new wonder food throughout North America, Europe, and parts of Asia, most notably Japan. Several producers of a Japanese fermented soybean product, natto, banded together to study tempeh and produce a breaded tempeh filet that consumers fried at home in woks. Immediately they became the biggest tempeh producers in the world, only to fold their operations a few years later.
In the United States, tempeh got a big boost from the production of the first Tempeh Burgers by Pacific Foods in San Francisco. Relatively few vegetarian burgers existed at that time, and these became quite popular. Pacific Foods also produced the first vacuum-sealed tempeh, a method that soon became the predominant method of packaging tempeh in North America. Multigrain tempehs were first introduced when Turtle Island Foods produced its Five Grain Tempeh in 1980 (Fig. 2).
Figure 2 Multigrain tempeh sold in the United States.
As the 1980s wore on, tofu, not tempeh, became America's favorite soy food of choice due to the lack of an ethnic base for tempeh and a lack of knowledge on how to prepare the product. Also, products such as the Gardenburger, which were easier to prepare and cheaper to manufacture, began to capture the public's attention. Tempeh manufacturers began to consolidate, and some stopped making the product altogether. Currently the North American tempeh market is dominated by three key players—Lightlife of Massachusetts, White Wave of Colorado, and Turtle Island Foods of Oregon—who collectively controlled 90% of the market for tempeh in North America in 2002.
In Indonesia, tempeh is still widely consumed by all economic classes of society. Once perceived as only a poor person's food (''Don't be a Tempeh Nation,'' General Sukarno exhorted in the 1960s), tempeh today is proudly viewed more as a precious part of the unique cultural heritage of Indonesian cuisine. It is still made in small shops on a cottage-industry scale with virtually no large, modern plants. As such, tempeh plays an important role in the economy and fabric of life of the Indonesian people (1).
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