True, tofu is king in the soy-based protein world. Still undiscovered, tempeh is the healthier option of the two though; the soy-based protein is also packed with fiber and other nutrients. Chowing on regular tofu offers up some hefty protein, but tempeh is the entire bean: protein, fiber, antioxidants and more.
Another benefit of tempeh is that it’s fermented, which can help if you cannot eat beans or other gaseous proteins. The enzymes in tempeh pre-digest the carbohydrates, the protein and the fat, so it’s much easier to digest and a great substitute to legumes, for example.
“Of course both (tofu and tempeh) are healthy,” says Sjon Welters, co-owner of Rhapsody Foods of Cabot, Vermont, also a small tempeh producer. “The one thing that tempeh has over tofu is that it’s fermented. The one thing tofu has over tempeh is that it’s a little lighter.”
Even though it originated from Indonesia, there’s plenty of tempeh being produced in the U.S. However, Japan is one of the largest producers of the protein—and fiber-packed soy. (In Japan, tempeh is often more processed and used as a raw ingredient for burgers and other dishes.)
“Tempeh is where tofu was in the ‘80s, says Welters. “In the early ‘80s nobody ever heard of tofu, and then it became more mainstream. Tempeh is where tofu was back then. It’s still an undiscovered food, but we’re working on that.”
Try these simple ideas to get cooking with tempeh:
One of the main characteristics of soy proteins like tempeh and tofu is that both take on whatever flavor surrounds them. If you put tempeh in an Indian dish, it will taste like curry or teriyaki or soy sauce in a Japanese dish. One way of prepping tempeh for everyday use is marinating it overnight. One easy suggestion: soy sauce, garlic and water. When ready, add to any dish— noodles, pasta or a tossed salad.
Thinly-sliced, pan fried tempeh can be used as the meat on a sandwich. Tempeh has a nice chewiness to it. It has a bite to it that’s very appealing. Try a spinach-tempeh wrap. Pull together some cubed tempeh (8 oz.), spinach leaves, four tablespoons of diced red onions, diced tomatoes, fresh cilantro leaves and one half cup of homemade ranch dressing and wrap it all up in a whole wheat tortilla. Natural foods stores like Rhapsody even sell ready-to-eat tempeh, including teriyaki and barbeque versions. You just have to open the package and eat it up. “A lot of people they still don’t know what to do with it and just don’t buy it,” says Welters. “Ready-to-eat is hopefully a way to help people become acquainted with tempeh.”
Tempeh is not just for vegetarians. It’s something worth including in any diet and can even be used together with animal-based protein. “If you want to cut back on meat and don’t want to become a vegetarian, you can include more tempeh into your diet for protein,” says Welters. “You get the good stuff and leave some of the animal food out.” Chicken nuggets and buffalo wings put on the pounds, so tempeh nuggets are a great alternative. Mix one tablespoon olive oil, balsamic vinegar and soy sauce with 2 minced garlic cloves. Add in some of your favorite herbs—thyme, basil, oregano, rosemary—and marinate tempeh in mixture. Cook over a non-stick pan until caramelized.