Meatless Monday: The Joy, the Soy, the (Sub-)Culture of Tempeh

Tempeh, the Indonesian soy superfood, dates back to sometime in the 16th century. And yet to the uninitiated, tempeh still provokes blank stares. Or fear.
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Betsy Shipley has seen the future, and it is an eco-loving foodie's wet dream -- honest, local, sustainable, organic, free of genetic modification, green, delicious, affordable and accessible to all. Yes, you say, I want that, too. It all revolves around tempeh. Still with us?

Tempeh, the Indonesian soy superfood, dates back to sometime in the 16th century. And yet to the uninitiated, tempeh still provokes blank stares. Or fear.

"It's the mold," sighs Betsy's husband, Gunter Pfaff. "The moldy culture. Edible mold in cheese or sauerkraut is totally acceptable, but with tempeh, it's still a little weird."

Gunter knows weird. A former documentary filmmaker, he found himself at 50 overeducated and unemployed, a victim of the recession. Sound familiar? This happened 30 years ago.

"It was Michigan, 1980, the previous recession," says a wry Gunter. "You could either drink yourself to death, jump off a bridge or do something constructive. I decided to make tempeh."

Now you can find packaged tempeh at natural food stores and even some supermarkets. Back then, if you could get it at all, it was through small local co-ops and was often handmade and homegrown. That's how Gunter and Betsy discovered it in the 70s. Others may fear tempeh, but they were tempeh true believers from the start, mold and all.

"We thought it was great," says Betsy, a vegetarian trying "to get away from eating too much cheese."

"I was into sausages," says Gunter. "It was the substitute for my meat habit, my sausage habit. If it wasn't for Betsy and tempeh, I would have been dead a long time ago."

Distinctly not dead, Gunter is 77, "pretty healthy," as he says, and active. He and Betsy bike and play tennis every day. Good genes? Maybe. But a diet tipping more towards tempeh than sausage doesn't hurt.

Mild-tasting tempeh packs serious nutritional creds, with 20 protein grams per 4-ounce serving, beaucoup fiber and only about 200 calories. It's got chew and substance, it's a meat substitute with a million apps.

It is one thing to love tempeh. It is another to go pro with it. Betsy's Tempeh started small, with the couple buying organic soybeans from local farmers and making tempeh on their Ann Arbor farm. While larger companies sell tempeh in bricks, they shaped theirs into patties, selling to neighboring food co-ops and nearby restaurants, who couldn't keep up with tempeh burger demand.

"We've done demos in supermarkets where people gave us a hug and said, 'Oh, thank God, you saved my life -- I've got vegetarian teenagers or a husband with a triple bypass.' We've had other people say, 'I'll eat my meat and die early, thank you.'" Gunter sighs. "Being way ahead of our time is very lonesome."

If Betsy and Gunter had the vision -- and cojones -- to make tempeh before the world was ready, you can at least try eating it. Buy a brick. Better yet, try making it yourself via Gunter's DIY tempeh technique. Make it for personal consumption. Go into business and make a fortune. Though retired from the tempeh biz, the couple remain the Johnny Appleseeds of tempeh, wanting to spread the joy and the soy. They will consult and talk you through the process.

Tempeh has a long and illustrious history, but it's the future of tempeh Betsy has dreams about, with each community having " a worker-owned tempeh production unit. We would love to see small food coops start making tempeh for the local community while working with organic farmers to grow the beans."

"It's so useful, such green food," says Gunter. "And you don't have to kill anything for lunch."

Chili-Spiked Tempeh With Green Beans and Brown Rice

8 ounces tempeh, cut into bite-sized cubes
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons sriracha*
2 tablespoons sesame oil
3 tablespoons soy
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup brown rice
2 cups water or vegetable broth
1-1/2 pounds green beans, tips trimmed, whole or cut into bite-sized pieces as desired
1/2 cup fresh mint, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup cashews

In medium-sized bowl, mix together soy, chili sauce, sesame oil. Stir in sugar until dissolved.

Add cubed tempeh, stirring a few times to coat. Let tempeh marinate in soy-chili mixture while you prepare brown rice and green beans.

In a medium-sized pot, bring water or vegetable broth to boil over high heat. Add brown rice. Cover and reduce heat to low. Let rice cook for 30 minutes, or until tender and all the liquid is absorbed. Return lid to pot and remove from heat. Let rice cool.

In a large pot, steam or boil green beans until crisp-tender and vivid green, about 7 minutes. Drain beans and immediately rinse in cold water and cover with a handful of ice. This stops the cooking process and keeps the beans at their vibrant best. When beans are cool, blot dry.

Toss green beans with tempeh and marinade. Gently mix in add cilantro and mint.

Heat oven to 400. Roast cashews for 8 to 10 minutes, until golden and fragrant. Coarsely chop.

Fluff rice with a fork. Serve green beans and tempeh over brown rice. Garnish with chopped cashews.

Enjoy room temperature or chilled. Refrigerated, it keeps several days

Serves 4.

*Asian chil sauce available in most natural food stores and all Asian markets.

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