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Jakarta’s Perfect Food Gains a Global Reach

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These days, it seems tempeh is everywhere. Fine diners at China’s The Eight —the Michelin star restaurant in Macau — enjoy finely chopped tempeh with stir-fried lobster and egg. In the acclaimed Brooklyn restaurant Sans, tempeh is used as a foil for truffles, celery root and olive oil.

At Sans in Brooklyn, tempeh is elegantly plated with truffles, celery root and olive oil to create one of the vegan restaurant’s signature dishes. Photo Credit: Sans

Chefs around the globe are beginning to understand what Indonesian grandmothers have known for centuries: Tempeh is a delicious and versatile ingredient. Firm in texture with an ability to absorb other flavours, it marries particularly well with the rich and punchy tastes of Indonesian cooking. In fact, it was mentioned in the Michelin Guide’s food trends to watch in 2018, as a key ingredient in “plant-forward cuisine,” which was declared the hottest trend of the year.

But tempeh’s entrance to the stage of globally-revered foods hasn’t come without help. It took the dedicated effort of a family of Jakartan food scientists to bring tempeh’s wealth of nutritional benefits to the attention of food bloggers and top-rated chefs around the world. Thanks to their work, the delicious Indonesian speciality made from whole fermented soybeans could be the next international superfood.

The Perfect Protein

When Amadeus Driando Ahnan, an aspiring musician and artist known as Driando, was a full-time student in Jakarta, he took up weight training. He ran into a problem when wanting to build muscle mass. He needed to consume more protein, but eating meat or taking protein supplements daily was prohibitive on his student budget, and he was allergic to the obvious substitutes — dairy and eggs.

So the biotechnology student did some research into alternative, cheap, high-quality, plant-based proteins. To his surprise, there was indeed an excellent protein alternative, and it was available on his doorstep.

Tempeh, he learned, is an almost perfect food. It’s high in easily digested protein, low in saturated fat and cholesterol, has plentiful fibre, iron and zinc and, unusually for a food of vegetable origin, is rich in vitamin B12. It’s also cheap to make, consisting of soybeans fermented with the mycelium Rhizopus Oligosporus.

Tempeh also has several advantages over the popular tofu because its fermentation process not only boosts its protein content and reduces fat, but also reduces phytic acid, an anti-nutrient common to soy products that inhibits the absorption of calcium, iron and zinc. Compared to meat it is not only affordable but also offers much higher nutritional returns in terms of land use and hence dramatically lower greenhouse gas emissions.

A Family-Driven International Movement

When some families get together, they like to talk about matters close to the heart. In the Driando’s family, conversation revolves around the gut. These days Driando continues to pursue his artistic career while doing a doctorate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on the cancer-fighting properties of tempeh. His mother, Wida Winarno is pursuing her own doctorate in public health and preventive nutrition. And his grandfather is Professor FG (Florentius Gregorius) Winarno, who is often called the Father of Indonesian Food Science. The common thread to their research and the subject of dinner table discussions? Tempeh. As Wida puts it, tempeh is “not merely a food, it’s more like a bioreactor in the form of food.”

In 2015, the Winarno trio created an international conference on tempeh to raise awareness of its nutritional and culinary benefits. The conference’s success led them to set up the non-profit organisation, Indonesian Tempeh Movement. Through the project, they are seeking to acquire UNESCO world heritage status for tempeh, spearhead initiatives like teaching tempeh-making in prisons, and promoting the food in the academic conference network.

Tempeh’s Humble Beginnings

Perhaps the biggest challenge the Winarno family has had to tackle is the public perception of tempeh. “In Indonesia, it’s the food of the poor,” Driando says. “In the US, it’s perceived as only for vegans.”

But the more people are exposed to the delicious preparations of tempeh, the less hold those negative biases have. Driando recommends marinating it in coconut water with crushed garlic, coriander and salt and then frying it. Tempeh’s subtle, nutty and earthy aroma is transformed when browned through frying, roasting or grilling.

Today, more and more food enthusiasts are familiar with those flavours. And as diets around the world turn increasingly plant-based, tempeh’s ability to replace a hearty protein as the central element of a dish has captured the imagination of home cooks and world-famous chefs alike.

Jakarta, the Home of Tempeh

“You can find tempeh around the world, but the best taste of tempeh is only in Indonesia,” says Wida Winarno. There are many regional variations and different kinds of fermentations, and it’s prepared in a plethora of ways, including stir-fries and curries. But for Wida, “Indonesia is like the heaven of tempeh.”

F. G. Winarno’s preferred dish is a childhood favourite called Sambal Tumpang, a kind of savoury porridge featuring meat, vegetables, aged tempeh, coconut milk, spices like galangal, and sugar from a village on Java close to where the earliest recorded tempeh was made, and where Winarno grew up.

Given its ubiquity, visitors to Jakarta can sample tempeh on almost any roadside food stand. Although Driando advises it’s wise to pay attention to hygiene standards before ordering, he’s a fan of street food and suggests trying everything: “It’s all good.”

For more high-end iterations, he recommends visiting Nusa Gastronomy, an award-winning restaurant whose chef Ragil Imam Wibowo marries indigenous ingredients and kitchen wisdom with a background in haute cuisine.

Between those poles, there is Burgreens, which uses healthy Indonesian ingredients to make vegan and vegetarian fast food.

If the Winarnos have their way, the answer to where you can find tempeh will be simple: everywhere. But nowhere will it be found in its best, original form like in Jakarta.

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