Tempeh: An Old New Craze In Singapore

New Kid in Town?

Tempeh is totally trendy. Hanging out around Haji Lane, hunting out a fashionable haunt on Hong Kong Street or hunkering down in a new hipster joint in Tiong Bahru, you’re likely to see tempeh dotted across cool cafe lunch menus and proudly proclaimed the main event of fashionable, organic, healthy, vegetarian and vegan meals – this marks a new stage in Singapore’s unique relationship with tempeh.

Tempeh has a comfortable home at cool contemporary cafes.

Tempeh is versatile, providing its own flavour as well as be a willing vehicle for spices, sauces and marinades. These characteristics contributed to tempeh’s historical role as a readily available staple food. They also allow its modern incarnation as an adaptable meat alternative or protein pack that is just as happy being tossed into a salad as it is adorning a rice dish, floating in a curry or being stuffed into anything from sandwiches to spring rolls, tucked into tacos or tossed onto tapas. Tofu is oh so last century, even quinoa is so five years ago. Exotic, unheard of, nutritious and tasty, fermented tempeh is the new thing. Right?

Kind of. It’s true that soy-based tempeh is delicious and nutritious and – at least among Singapore’s expat community – relatively exotic. What’s not true is that tempeh is the new kid on the block. Singapore is different from hundreds of cities around the world, where tempeh has relatively recently emerged from the shadows of vegan communities and organic co-ops to become one of the new darlings of fashionable food – because it’s been mainstream in Singapore for a while.

Where Tempeh Comes From

A firm, yellow-brown-white food made from soybeans, tempeh is likened to tofu (and probably shares an ancestry), though it is much firmer and coarser, with chunks of beans still visible. Crucially, it also has a distinctive tang deriving from its unique fermentation process, giving a depth of flavour very distinct from plain tofu. After fermentation of partially cooked soy beans by an introduced bacterial culture, the resulting tempeh cakes – usually resembling something between nougat and haloumi – are most commonly sliced into pieces and fried before being added to any number of dishes.

Made from fermented soybeans, tempeh is a traditional Indonesian staple.

Tempeh’s Numerous Health Benefits

Tempeh has broad health benefits over other soy-based products. Whole soybeans contain plenty of nutrients, but most of these are inaccessible to us in the soybean’s natural state – the reason why many industrial soy products (like vegetable oil, soy flour and protein-packed soybean meal) are not as healthy as some may hope. During tempeh’s fermentation process, though, live microorganisms break down proteins and carbohydrates, unlock nutrients and generally make soy’s goodness more accessible and digestible to humans (much like yeasts and lactic-acid bacteria help make bread more nutritious during sourdough fermentation).

Tempeh has been a staple food in Indonesia, particularly on Java, for centuries. Modern Singapore has always had a significant population of Javanese Malays, either direct migrants from Java or Malays from other areas who have Javanese ancestry. Some Javanese arrived in the late 19th century as pilgrims, using the British colony of Singapore as an easier way to reach Mecca to perform the Islamic Hajj than was otherwise possible under Dutch authority in Java. These pilgrims largely stayed in Singapore for months, years or even permanently in order to earn money, often to pay debts accrued by their pilgrimage.

Still more Javanese arrived as forced labourers conscripted under the Japanese (who occupied both Indonesia and Singapore for three years during WWII), while streams of Javanese migrated to Singapore to work as low-skilled labourers in the post-war decades. Along with their families and arrivées from other parts of modern-day Indonesia and Malaysia, the steady Javanese influx has had a significant influence on the life, culture and food of Singapore – including the introduction and proliferation of tempeh.

Tempeh has long been associated with poverty.

Scorn on the Cob

However, the historical status of tempeh in Indonesia, Java and Singapore was much different from what it currently is among fashionable foodies. It was not a cool alternative to boring, familiar foods. Instead, especially among the upper classes, this fermented soy cake was scorned as a sustenance staple, a food for the masses (therefore the poor) and – since it had been crucial to survival during numerous periods of near-starvation – a famine food. Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia following independence from the Dutch Empire in 1949, famously rallied people by insisting ‘don’t let us be a tempeh society!’, encouraging Indonesians to strive far beyond a symbolically poor, backwards foodstuff.

So what’s next for tempeh? Although largely deserving of its reputation in chic eateries the world over, a look at the stories of similar nutritional darlings in recent years would suggest that tempeh should soon be pushed aside by a new contender as quinoa gave way to chia, brown rice to freekeh, green tea to kombucha, brown sugar to sweeteners, sweeteners to stevia, soy milk to almond, spinach to kale and, yes, tofu to tempeh (it’s the circle of life). It seems fair, if not inevitable, to predict that tempeh will enjoy its time in the spotlight and then gracefully bow out of trendy cafe and restaurant menus across Australasia, Europe, America and elsewhere.

Today, tempeh appears in all sorts of places it never has traditionally.

In Singapore, however, this is not so sound a prediction. Here we have the rare meeting of an old friend and a new trend. Unlike for cafe owners in Melbourne or London, tempeh is not something that has to be hunted down, imported or forked out for. It is already something easily available, and its supply is unlikely to slow down merely because it stops featuring in fashionable food blogs. Thanks to Singapore’s social heritage, especially the historic Javanese migrants but now the ubiquitous Indonesian stores and markets, it’s here to stay.

Unlike most food fads, tempeh may be here for the long haul.

Looking To The Future

Worldwide, tempeh may or may not prove to be the silver bullet that kills the contemporary, cyclical desire to delve back into culinary cultures in search of something to save us from our disastrous, self-destructive modern diet. But either way, with its unique blend of a rich cultural heritage and supercharged modernism, Singapore must be the litmus test for tempeh’s future. Here we have cutting-edge food endeavours to rival any city on Earth, with big-name chefs and influential players drawn by Singapore’s unique venture opportunities. We also have an abundance of authentic authorities – the hawker centres, the bustling markets, the Indonesian grocery stores, the tempeh-makers (whether nearby factory plants or at-home fermentation experts), and Javanese grandmothers’ recipes.

In case tempeh is a just a phase, intrigued eaters around the world should try it while they can. In Singapore, maybe it’s better to suggest instead: get used to it.

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