What is Tempeh? A definition and how to cook it

Grilled tempeh
Grilled tempeh photo by Lauren Krohn/Getty Images

Although it may be new to the west, tempeh is a vegetarian soy food that has been eaten in Asia, particularly Indonesia, for hundreds of years and is popular in vegetarian and vegan cooking as a stand-in replacement for meat. 

What Is Tempeh?

Tempeh is made from cooked and slightly fermented soybeans and formed into a patty, similar to a very firm veggie burger. Most commercially prepared brands of tempeh add other grains, such as barley, and there are many varieties available. Although tempeh is made from soy, it has a unique taste and is mildly flavorful on its own, unlike tofu.

If you aren't fond of tofu, tempeh is also very high in protein and calcium, as well as beneficial isoflavones, but tempeh actually tastes nothing like tofu and the two have very little in common. Tempeh has a textured and nutty flavor with a very firm texture which doesn't easily crumble like tofu does. Many vegetarian and vegan recipes use tempeh as a meat substitute when making make stir-fries, sandwiches, or chili. 

How to Use Tempeh

Since it is a low-fat and high-protein food, many vegetarians choose to include tempeh in their diet on a regular basis. Try adding some to a stir-fry instead of tofu, or crumble/finely chop it up and add it to soups or meatless chili. Its firm texture requires that you slice tempeh into small cubes not more than 3/4 inch thick, and many tempeh recipes will call for it to be simmered for about 10 minutes before cooking it or adding it into a dish; this is just to soften it up a bit, since tempeh has a very firm texture.

Tempeh can be found in the refrigerated section of most health food stores and in the natural foods aisle of well-stocked grocery stores.

What is the Nutritional Value of Tempeh?

Tempeh is a high-protein, relatively low-fat and cholesterol-free food perfect for vegetarians, vegans, or anyone looking for a low-fat and heart-healthy source of protein. 

Depending on the brand, one serving of tempeh (100 grams) provides around 200 calories, 18.2 grams of protein, and 10% of the RDA of both calcium and iron. Tempeh is a naturally cholesterol-free food, as are all vegan foods.