Tempeh: Tofu's Funky, Fermented Cousin

In the name of good health and a good read, each week we'll be bringing you a health product, complete with review. We're calling this feature Crunchy Granola -- even though we doubt much of this stuff tastes that good.

This week: Tempeh

Tempeh, pronounced tem-pay, is basically fermented slabs of de-hulled soy beans. Unlike its distant relative, tofu, tempeh doesn't have a creamy consistency and is praised by some as being a much healthier, less-processed source of protein, albeit a cultured, fungus-producing one.

Get the rest of the crunchy scoop after the jump.

The hippie history: Unlike most soy-based products that hail from China or Japan, tempeh comes from the islands of Indonesia, where people have been culturing and cooking the fermented cakes for more than 2,000 years. Dutch rule over the islands brought tempeh to Europe, and the first English-language article about the food wasn't written until the 1930s. Tempeh is still eaten in many southeast Asian households today, fried for a crispy snack or marinated and cooked as a main dish often accompanied by rice.

Although many Indonesian families have varying tempeh-making techniques, the basic method is rather simple: Whole soybeans are mixed with a grain (such as rice) and a culturing agent known as a "starter." The starter is often a sample from the last batch of tempeh, and contains the spores of fungus that help kick-start the fermentation process. Then, this mixture is traditionally wrapped in banana leaves and left to ferment for 18 to 24 hours, or until it forms a brick. Want one last tempeh fun fact? When you look at tempeh, the white you see in between the beans is known as mycelia, the thread-like part of the fungus that holds the fermented cake together. Yum.

Why am I eating this again? Because the soy beans are left whole, tempeh is a great source of protein (just 4 ounces of the stuff will give you 41.3% of your daily value, according to World's Healthiest Foods), which is made easily digestible by the fermentation process. Fermentation also helps the soy beans develop vitamins such as riboflavin and magnesium, and like all soy products, tempeh contains no cholesterol and high levels of dietary fiber.

The crunchy conclusion: Tempeh can be found in the refrigerated section of most natural foods markets, and an 8 ounce package will run you $3 to $4. The Lightlife brand offers six different varieties of tempeh, including original soy, garden veggie and "fakin' bacon" smoky strips.

I picked up a pack of garden veggie and headed back home for lunch. After a little online research, I read that it is important to steam the tempeh before you cook it, helping it soak up any seasoning or marinades when you heat it. That's sounds all fine and in the name of flavor, the only thing is, the minute you start to steam it a strong smell of nasty, sweaty gym sock hits your nose and kills your appetite. I literally had to walk away from the stove while it finished steaming, most likely so I didn't haul the stuff straight to the trash. I later found out that steaming isn't really that necessary, which was a great relief, especially if there is any chance I'll be eating this stuff again.

After the steam torture, I remembered another tip a friend and tempeh-lover had given me: Season the crap out of it, or it will end up tasting like funky cardboard. This one, I thought, couldn't possibly end in disaster like the last gem of advice given to me (thanks, internet). I cut the tempeh into strips and grabbed some olive oil, garlic, garlic salt and pepper to sautee the strips until just golden brown. You want to avoid overcooking and keep in mind you only really need to heat the tempeh through, since it comes already cooked.

After trying the sauteed strips solo, I probably would need some kind of spicy dipping sauce to be able to really enjoy them. Alas, I found myself in a lunch-time, stomach-still-growling predicament: I had no dipping sauce and 7.5 ounces of tempeh left. I then remembered seeing a tempeh-infused twist on a BLT at True Food Kitchen's menu that sparked my interest last time I was there (and yes, it is in fact called a TLT).

There's no way around it: I was impressed by my sandwich. I would never, ever dare to say that tempeh is the new bacon (ever), but the nutty flavor and meaty texture worked really well in the sandwich -- so well in fact, I didn't really miss the meat. And if I ever find myself BLT-craving and bacon-less,I might even try it again.