For years I didn’t understand the appeal of tempeh. I tried cooking with it once or twice, and had a few restaurant dishes with it, but I never really liked it. Even high-end tempeh made here in Brooklyn left me shrugging. But then earlier this year we traveled to Indonesia, where tempeh is originally from. On our first morning we had the hotel breakfast, which included some Western items as well as some Indonesian ones. I got a small spoonful of the tempeh, and then when I tasted it I went back for a big spoonful. After that, I was hooked. It turns out that I was the problem, not tempeh. So here’s how to cook tempeh so that it’s good, no trip to Indonesia required (though I highly recommend it).
Tempeh is a cake made of fermented soy, though it doesn’t usually have much flavor on its own. I usually see it looking sad and lonely in the corner of the produce section at the grocery store. Supermarket tempeh is perfectly good, though there are some “artisanal” brands out there if you’d prefer.
The hotel breakfast tempeh that made me love it was cut into small strips, deep-fried until crispy, then tossed with the savory/sweet Indonesian soy sauce condiment called kecap manis, so that’s how I do it at home. Cutting the tempeh into small pieces increases the surface area for delicious crispy bits, and I also toss those pieces lightly with cornstarch to increase the crispy factor. I shallow-fry rather than deep-fry, and get the tempeh nicely browned all around. Then I remove it from the pan, and season it with salt and pepper. Then I do the same thing with sliced mushrooms. Finally a green vegetable — I’ve used green beans, broccoli, even Brussels sprouts. When the vegetables are just cooked through I add the tempeh and the mushrooms back into the pan and toss everything together. Then I season with the kecap manis. It’s available at Asian groceries or to order online, but if you can’t get it I would recommend adding a sprinkle of sugar to the pan, tossing it to coat everything, and then adding regular soy sauce. It’s the interplay of sweet and savory that you’re going for.
That’s basically it. Serve it over rice or noodles, and for a real Indonesian flair add some fried garlic chips, an extra drizzle of kecap manis, and a spoonful of spicy sambal (garlic-chile sauce). Then imagine you’re at a hotel breakfast in Jakarta and go back for seconds.