Tempeh is a fermented food of Indonesia with a long, storied past and great potential yet uncertain future in the United States. Largely made on a small, cottage industry level where self-sufficiency is valued over financial gain, Indonesian tempeh is made today in thousands of shops all across this island nation using very rudimentary fermentation methods. Tempeh is an ethnic food that deserves the pride that Indonesians now place in this most unusual product.
Transferring this cottage industry into the modern Western realities of sanitary, large-scale food production brings many challenges and problems. From a production standpoint, perhaps the biggest problem is the fact that the incubation of tempeh takes up a large quantity of space and a relatively long period of time with high loss potential from fermentations gone awry. Other soy products made from soy protein isolates and concentrates are more suited to contemporary industrial food production because the processing of these foods takes up less time and space. Then there are the marketing challenges as one tries to educate the American public in what to do with a fermented cake of soybeans. Soy protein isolates and concentrates can be easily made with more and more accuracy, to simulate the more familiar tastes and textures of meat.
Still, as a whole food, made by a relatively simple technological process, tempeh has great potential. Tofu was brought to this country in the early 1900s by Japanese and Chinese immigrants and it was only in the 1980s that it became popular with the American public. And this popularity was driven somewhat from innovative soy products such as tofu dogs, burgers, and ice cream. Perhaps when secondary products are made from tempeh, such as fries, snacks and flavored frozen food entrees, tempeh will in time take hold in the Western world in much the same manner as tofu. The author's experience is that when prepared properly, tempeh is well loved and even preferred over many of the higher tech soy products.
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