Friday, February 20, 2009

How to cook tempeh - best recipe with cooking tips

tempehTempeh is an Indonesian product made from soya beans. I first encountered it in Jakarta where my friend's cook fixed a vegan dinner for me with meat replaced by fried tempeh. When raw, it smells yeasty and mushroomy and tastes bland and doughy. When cooked, it has a lovely meaty texture and a nutty flavour reminiscent of fried bacon.

It is delicious with freshly made long-grain rice and sambal manis (mind you, it is NOT he same as sambal kecap manis, which is a sweetish soya sauce!) This is how I had it for the first time in a remote mountain village on a stopover during our 25-hour Trans-Sumatran Death Trip From Hell back in 2001.

It took me some time to replicate that taste. There are a lot of tricks of trade that you need to know to fry your tempeh perfectly:

  1. SMALL EVEN PIECES: Cut the tempeh loaf into even 3-4-mm cubes, this way they all will get cooked evenly.

  2. CAST-IRON WOK: Heat very well a thick-bottomed pan/wok. Heat is distributed evenly in such ironware making sure that everything is cooked well.

  3. HOT ODOURLESS OIL: Pour about 1.5 cm of non-smoking cooking oil (mustard rapeseed or grape seed oil is good, olive oil will NOT do) and wait until it gets hot. I normally wait until it just starts ever-so-lightly smoking.

  4. AMPLE OIL: Don't save on oil, if you've poured too much you can always strain the tempeh and cut the rest with a paper towel. If you don't put enough oil, you'll end up with a soggy, anaemic final product.

  5. EXPOSE ALL PIECES TO OIL: Add the cut tempeh and make sure it gets all covered with oil immediately. This will form a crust on top of each tempeh cube that won't allow it to soak in too much oil.

  6. KEEP STIRRING: Make sure the tempeh cubes get evenly fried on all sides.

  7. MODERATE HEAT: The fire should be medium high. If it is too high, tempeh will get burnt, if it is too low, tempeh will absorb too much oil and end up greasy and soggy.

  8. DON'T OVERCOOK: Fry until crisp and dark golden brown, NOT dark brown. See the top picture, that's where you should stop.

  9. ADD FLAVOUR: A dash of fish sauce or shoyu for veg(etari)ans closer to the end adds flavour and saltiness.
It comes out so good you can have it as a snack on its own, or use it instead of meat in various dishes. Just remember it does not need any additional cooking. Also don't let it soak in sauces too long, as it will become soggy. The quickest yet supremely delicious dish you can make with tempeh is gado-gado.

The right kind of
tempeh is hard to come by. A lot of truly weird stuff is marketed under that name. In London, where I live now, they sell what looks more like vacuum-packed goobers. At £4.65 for 100g it must be celebrity goobers. Every time I have visitors from Amsterdam I have to ask them to bring me some real tempeh. Thanks to Holland's past colonial connections, even local chain supermarkets carry it there. Your best bet would be be asking around in your local Indonesian restaurants where they get hold of their tempeh. Or you can make it yourself from beans and tempeh starter available to order online.

Spruce up your diet with my vegetarian recipes from all over the world!


  1. The tempeh I buy does not look like these ones at all. It is soaking in juices and quite don't know what to do with them.

  2. EXACTLY! I've seen tempeh come in a can. It had Chinese Characters on it. I bought it and when my friend who spoke Chinese visited me, I asked her what it meant, she said it meant jia-qin-rou (Mock Duck Meat). She said that it wasn't tempeh, but Im still not entirely sure.

  3. I've also seen lots of weird things sold as tempeh. AFAIK, the only real authentic one looks like in the pictures. You may want to ask around in your local Indonesian restaurants where they get hold of their tempeh.

  4. Oooh, thank you so much for posting this. I've not been able to get hold of tempeh for 12 years, but before Christmas I'd found a place which sells the type which looks exactly like your photo. Now I can't wait for it to defrost & cook up! x

  5. Muck Duck Meat isn't meat at all. It is prepared Tempeh.

  6. Mock Duck is definitely not Tempeh, it's fried seitan (wheat gluten)

  7. Very passionate about calirfying the Mock Duck...

  8. Thank you for the help on the Tempeh, just cooked some and it's come up fantastic!

  9. Finally, a tempeh recipe that tastes good! Thank you, thank you. Up till now, my own tempeh "creations" have been either tasteless or actually disgusting.

  10. Thankyou! I made "Chicken Enchiladas" last night and read a bad recipe where you just throw in the tempeh like you would chicken. It turned out AWEFUL I used huge peices and baked them. Bad idea! It tasted like I got a mouth full of unripe walnuts mixed with windex. The only person who'd eat it was the little 2 year old I watch. Thankyou for clairfying this! I just tried frying a little bit of it, it turned out great, kind of a french fry flavor? I bought light life organic tempeh it was good (the second time) and not watery or oily like the others described.

    <3 Crystal :)

  11. How much tempeh is considered a proper portion? New vege/pescetarian couple here.

  12. Other easy method is to slice tempeh block about 0.5mm. Soak sliced tempeh with a mixture of garlic powder, coriander powder and salt with a bit of water. Prepare a batter using 50% plain flour and 50% rice flour and ice cold water. Seasoned with a pinch of salt and sliced spring onion.
    Dipped the marinated tempeh into the batter and deep fry until light brown.