Norma Jean Baker knew the power of a short, memorable name. That's why she became Marilyn Monroe. Same with Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who chose to be known as Mark Twain. Tempeh (tehm-pay), tofu's Indonesian relative, also benefits from a snappy name; otherwise it might be known as "mildly fermented cakes of cracked, cooked soybeans."
Tempeh and firm tofu have a lot in common. Both make excellent meat substitutes in culinary applications, ranging from sautéing, baking, roasting, and steaming to stewing. But the similarities stop there. Tempeh is made from a simple process-hull soybeans, crack and boil them, then introduce a starter bacteria that ferments the soybean mixture. The result is a pebbled, buff-colored soybean cake. That minimal processing helps tempeh retain many of the nutritional properties related to soybeans, such as high-quality protein and isoflavones, a heavily studied plant-based hormonelike substance that may help prevent heart disease and, although studies are conflicting, some cancers. Tofu is created by crushing, soaking, curdling, and pressing soybeans, which inadvertently removes some of the soy nutrients. Also, because tempeh contains soybeans that are more intact, a four-ounce serving contains as much as six times more fiber than an equal portion of tofu. Tempeh is also a good source of calcium and can provide significant amounts of iron.
And then there's the taste. While tofu takes on the flavors of other ingredients, tempeh asserts itself. Vegetarian cookbook author Crescent Dragonwagon describes tempeh as "mushroomlike and reminiscent of veal." After sampling nearly a dozen varieties in the Cooking Light Test Kitchens, we agree. Tempeh obtains much of its nutty, subtle, tangy flavor from the fermentation process. When temperature changes, the bacteria present in tempeh may cause small patches of gray or black spores to bloom on the tempeh's surface, much like the threads that permeate blue cheese. These spores are harmless and only add to tempeh's unique yeasty flavor.
For a good introduction to tempeh, try a traditional use such as Tempeh Coconut Curry. Showcase fresh summer produce with a Mediterranean twist in Tempeh Ratatouille. Whatever the application, you'll see tempeh is as tasty as it is versatile.