Soyfoods have been part of Asian diets for centuries. The ones that have long been a part of Asian cuisine include tofu, soymilk, and soybeans along with fermented products like miso, tempeh and natto.
We have some good information about how much and what kinds of soy are consumed throughout Asia from national surveys and also from epidemiologic studies. They show that people in Japan typically eat 1 to 1 ½ servings of soyfoods per day. Many older people, who have more traditional eating patterns, consume considerably more than this. About half is in the form of fermented foods miso and natto. The other half comes mostly from tofu.
In Shanghai, China, total soy consumption is similar to Japan, but most of the soy consumed is non-fermented—mostly soymilk and tofu. Tofu and soymilk are also the most popular choices in Hong Kong and South Korea.
Tofu is also popular in Indonesia, almost as popular, in fact, as tempeh, which is considered the national food of Indonesia. According to The SoyInfo Center, tempeh is the only traditional soyfood that originated outside of Japan or China. It’s still often made in Indonesia in the traditional manner, by wrapping treated soybeans in banana leaves to ferment.
Including some fermented soyfoods like tempeh in your diet might have a few advantages. For example, if you find that eating too many legumes gives you gas, tempeh is often easier to digest. It’s also possible that iron is more easily absorbed from fermented foods like tempeh.
Aside from those considerations, tempeh can add great interest to vegan diets. It has a tender, chunky texture and a flavor that is sometimes described as “nutty,” “smoky,” or “earthy.” In Indonesia, a traditional way to serve it is with vegetables and spicy peanut sauce (try the recipe on page 304 of Never Too Late to Go Vegan), or simmered in coconut milk with spices.
I love to cook tempeh in those authentic ways, but you’ll also always find a big bowl of tempeh salad in my refrigerator. It’s a more westernized way to enjoy tempeh and it’s great for snacks and lunches.
Here are two tempeh salad recipes that are inspired by a recipe for “Tempuna” in the classic cookbook Tempeh Cookery by Colleen Pride. I’ve been cooking from this book for 30 years; it’s still one of my favorites. Unfortunately, this book is no longer in print, but it’s easy to find used copies.
Here are two variations on Colleen’s recipe:
Tempeh Salad with Sweet Pickles
8 ounces tempeh
1 cup chopped celery
¼ cup chopped onion
¼ cup sweet pickle relish
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1/4 to ½ cup of vegan mayonnaise (try Vegenaise or Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo)
Salt and pepper to taste
Steam the tempeh in a vegetable steamer for 20 minutes. Let cool and then grate or chop finely. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix thoroughly. Adjust the seasonings and the mayonnaise. (I start with ¼ cup and add more as needed.)
Tempeh Salad with Apples and Walnuts
With just a few ingredient switches, this makes a salad with a completely different flavor. Use the recipe above, but omit the relish and add 1 cup of chopped apples and ¼ cup of chopped walnuts. You’ll probably need a little bit more mayo with this since it makes more salad.