What is tempeh?
For those unfamiliar, tempeh is an Indonesian dish that uses a white fungus to ferment soybeans, resulting in a cake-like structure that has the soybeans packed tightly together. More specifically, it is cultured using rhizophus spores, which help create the white mold that coats the outside of tempeh but also the mycelium structures that bind the beans together instead of remaining separate units. Lactic acid and yeast fermentation are also occurring, but the rhizophus are responsible for some of the distinct tempeh characteristics. This unique structure and texture lends tempeh really well to dishes where it can hold its shape and soak up lots of flavor, such as stir fry or simmered in bbq sauce. It has a nutty, rich flavor that most other legume-based items can lack without some serious other ingredients added in. It is much different from tofu, both in how it is made, but also its flavor and texture, as it is much more flavorful and has a toothsome bite to it.
Yes, I enjoy tempeh every so often and definitely did not go vegetarian or anything. No worries there! Even an avid meat eater and promoter of all things animal-based likes a little tempeh now and then.
I generally do not eat soy in my diet except for the occasional tempeh, shoyu, or miso. What these foods all have in common is that they are fermented. Other soy-based foods are typically very processed, such as soy milk or soy protein powder, and I avoid these as much as possible. Fermented soy foods, however, are not only less process but the amounts of anti-nutrients that soybeans contain are greatly reduced. This is true with any fermented or properly-prepared legume, but is especially important with soybeans. This makes the beans more digestible and more nutrient-dense as well. Fermented soy products are very traditional foods in many cultures, such as miso, natto, and shoyu in Japan, fermented tofu in China, or tempeh in Indonesia, and they offer probiotic benefits in addition to being more digestible.
Even with the improved nutritional quality of traditional soy foods, I tend to limit them in my meals, as too much soy can still contribute excess goitrogens to the diet. These can cause down-regulation of the thyroid and increase the body's need for iodine when consumed in large amounts. Plus, I eat a lot of meat and other animal foods, so I don't really need plant protein sources in any considerable quality. Shoyu, natto and miso are used as garnishes, with amounts so small that they don't add up to a high goitrogen intake. Plus, these are probiotic-rich fermented foods and add more diversity to the microbiome, adding another layer of goodness to them! Unless you have a soy allergy, it is totally fine to have small amounts of fermented soy in the diet, taking care that it is made with organic, US-grown soybeans that have not been treated with herbicides or made using genetic modification.
With all that said, let's make some tempeh salad!
My love for tempeh and, especially, tempeh salad, is a holdover from my long-ago vegan days. When I craved chicken salad, this is what I would have instead. Now, I still eat it because I just love it and sometimes want something different in my meals. I use real mayonnaise instead of fake vegan versions today, of course! If you wanted to add more protein and some animal foods to this recipe, you could even make it with half tempeh and half chicken for a hybrid meat- and plant-based protein salad. Tuna or hard boiled eggs would also go well if you wanted to throw those in there instead of chicken.
I typically serve this for dipping with sprouted crackers, made into a sandwich on some sourdough bread, or on top of a bed of greens for a meal-sized salad. You can, of course, go nuts with what you do with it.
Tasty Tempeh Salad
Yields: 2-4 servings
TIme: 15 minutes
1/2 cup water
1-8 ounce package organic tempeh, cubed
1/2 Tbs soy sauce (can sub fish sauce or coconut aminos for soy-free version)
1/4 cup red onion, small diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 stalks celery, small diced
1/2 cup flat leaf (Italian) parsley, chopped
1/4 cup chopped, toasted walnuts or other nut or seed (the one pictured above has pepitas...use what you got)
Optional: 1 cup red grapes, halved
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 Tbs dijon mustard
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp sea salt, to taste
1/8-1/4 tsp black pepper, to taste
1. In a small pan, combine the cubed tempeh with the water and soy sauce. Let simmer abut 10 minutes, until most of the water has cooked out. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
2. While the tempeh cools, mix together the onion, garlic, celery, parsley, nuts and grapes, if using, in a mixing bowl. Stir well to combine.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together the mayo, mustard, lemon, vinegar, salt and pepper.
4. Add the cooked and cooled tempeh to the vegetable mix and stir. Add the dressing to the tempeh mix and stir to coat completely with the sauce.
5. Let chill a few hours before serving for best results, though you can feel free to serve right away if you like. This will keep for up to a week in the fridge.
If you are interested in making your own tempeh at home, with organic soybeans or other legumes and grains, you have to check out the book Miso, Tempeh, Natto (& Other Tasty Ferments) by Kirsten Shockey. This fermentation cookbook is full of amazing ideas for fermenting beans and grains at home, using different methods such as fermenting with koji and other spores. It even features a gorgeous picture of tempeh on the cover! This is an awesome skill to have in addition to lacto-fermenting beverages and vegetables, and this book helps you step-by-step along the way. There are also ideas for how to use these ferments in your meals, which is helpful whether you make them yourself or purchase them at the store. I took a koji fermentation class with Kirsten last fall and was so inspired! I did not make the tempeh for the recipe above, but hope to venture into that land someday. Find her book online (which is the reference for the info on tempeh up top) and follow her on social media, at @fermentworks, for even more awesome ideas for how to make and use legume ferments such as tempeh!
Brine & Broth
I am a gut health-focused nutritionist and online health coach based in Southwest Wisconsin. My recipes and philosophies center around traditional, nutrient-dense foods that support robust gut health.