The first time Prathap Nair tasted tempeh on a trip to Bali, he loved it, and remarked how its nutty flavour enticed his taste buds.
It is par for the course in the Indonesian island destination to serve meals with tempeh on the side, as a fried or even caramelised accompaniment. Once he was back in India, though, Nair found tempeh wasn’t readily available, and asking for it usually elicited blank looks of incomprehension.
Plant protein on the rise
The fermented food made from whole soya beans isn’t by any means a new ingredient. By most historical accounts, it originated in Java, Indonesia, and has been around for more than 1,000 years.
It is made with only three ingredients — soyabeans, water and a fungus — and using a process that involves up to 36 hours of fermentation, resulting in a dense and compact cake.
Tempeh has much going for it. Apart from its mild nutty flavour, it has a hearty texture. Its porous quality enables other flavours to be absorbed, making tempeh extremely versatile.
However, it remained a traditional Javanese ingredient for centuries, only leaping on to the global culinary scene recently, when plant-based protein consumption began rising in popularity.
By the end of 2022, the global plant-based protein market is expected to be valued at a staggering $14.58 billion at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.6 per cent. Of this, the Tempeh Global Market Report 2022, published by The Business Research Company, deems tempeh to be close to $5bn and projected to grow at a CAGR of 7.8 per cent.
Versatile and healthy
Fuelling this growth is a diverse set of reasons. In India, for example, more than 30 per cent of the 1.39 billion-strong population is vegetarian, while 40 per cent comprises casual non-vegetarians (non-regular meat-eaters) who are looking for protein and meat substitutes.
In the UAE and other parts of the Middle East, which are among the largest per-capita meat consumers, healthy and eco-friendly reasons are driving the market. Tempeh is jostling for a foothold in this nascent space and seems to be making healthy strides.
“What started off as a fad has now become a change in lifestyle for residents,” says Divyesh Bhatia, co-founder and business development manager at Vegarian Middle East. "A [2020 Google Trends data] study identified a 250 per cent increase in vegan products in UAE supermarkets since 2010."
He attributes the rising popularity of plant-based proteins to the “significant increase in awareness about animal cruelty and the effects of the meat industry on the environment, which are driving people to adopt sustainable food practices”.
Of all the options available in this segment, tempeh brings a slew of benefits to the table. “It is known for its nutrient-dense properties, especially protein,” says nutritionist and fitness coach Malavika Siddharth V, who lives in Dubai. “It is also dairy-free, gluten-free, low in saturated fat, naturally cholesterol-free, rich in fibre and gut-friendly.
"It is perfect for people leading an active lifestyle, those with diabetes, and those looking to lose weight or improve heart health. The high protein content keeps you full for a longer period of time, reducing cravings for unnecessary snacks,” she says.
'A chef's dream'
Chefs, too, are getting excited about tempeh’s twin attributes of versatility and health benefits. “As a professional chef, one is always searching for ingredients to add into menus,” says Nigel Lobo, group executive chef of Stars N Bars, who has been working with tempeh for two years now.
“In the Middle East, a lot of people have moved away from French fries and cheesy dishes. Diners have become health conscious even when they dine out. The rise of plant-based protein is where tempeh comes in. It has a lot going for it; it is nutritious, gut-friendly and also an easy substitute for chicken.”
Health benefits aside, it’s tempeh’s versatility that appeals to Lobo. He calls the ingredient “a chef’s dream”. It has a mild flavour, can be used diced, minced, mashed or crumbled, and suits myriad cuisines and dishes, from kebabs and makhni to quesadillas and stir-fries.
In India, the ingredient has seen a dizzying ascent. Hello Tempayy by Vegolution from Bangalore launched last March with an output of six tonnes a month, and is already readying to double production.
“We consider tempeh to be the world’s best-kept protein secret,” says Vegolution founder and chief executive Siddharth Ramasubramanian. “It is one of those ingredients that comes with a clean label, with no additions and no preservatives, and is a fantastic source of high-quality protein.”
Ramasubramanian’s target is also slightly different from most other plant-based protein brands. Rather than going after meat-eaters, Vegolution, which calls itself a “disrupter in the plant-based market”, is wooing vegetarians with the logic that tempeh is a far better protein to add to the daily diet than veggie staple cottage cheese.
Nihala Jaleel, an influencer who lives in Dubai and manages the vegan recipes Instagram page @hala_shares, cooked with tempeh for the first time a couple of years ago, using it to make gyros.
“It was delicious, and I was impressed by tempeh’s meaty texture and flavour,” she says. Living in a region where meat-consumption is heavy, she says people turn to plant-based foods because of their love for animals and the planet. “Many of them miss the foods they had before becoming vegans. Tempeh is a great substitute for bacon, and a majority of my vegan friends use tempeh strips to mimic bacon strips,” she says.
Though tempeh is steadily increasing its palate count, it is still some way away from becoming a regular on menus. Jaleel, too, says she personally prefers tofu to tempeh, but admits that “tempeh is richer than tofu in nutrition and protein”.
“It’s a slow process. We started putting it on the specials menu and then moved it into the a la carte menu, but the conversations it sparks with customers are important to have,” says Lobo, while Jaleel predicts that “the popularity for tempeh is still in its infancy, but I expect it to grow in the coming months”.
For Nair, who treats the ingredient very simply by lightly frying and tossing it in salads, tempeh might be niche, but it is slowly and surely coming out of the gastro shadow.
Recipe: Tempeh tacos
Ingredients and method for the tempeh
200g tempeh cubes
4 tortilla or taco shells
6 tsp barbecue sauce
Marinate the cubes in the barbecue sauce for 10 minutes.
Saute in a hot pan for five minutes and set aside.
Ingredients and method for the refried beans
6 tsp boiled kidney beans
1 tsp fresh garlic
2 tsp cumin powder
2 tsp cut jalapenos
2 tsp fresh coriander
4 tsp tomato puree
3 tsp oil
Salt to taste
Boil the kidney beans until they are soft, then grind into a paste and set aside.
Heat oil in a pan and saute the chopped garlic.
Add the tomato puree and saute for about four minutes.
Add in the kidney beans paste and cumin powder, and cook for 10 minutes.
Finish by sprinkling with chopped jalapenos, chopped coriander and salt to taste.
Ingredients and method for the sour cream
4 tsp hung curd
2 tsp lemon juice
1 fresh red chilli
1 tsp black pepper powder
Mix all the ingredients together well.
Heat the tortillas on a hot pan (skip this step if using taco shells).
Lay them on a board and spread the refried beans evenly.
Add the barbeque-marinated tempeh and top it with sour cream.
Make a roll/ taco and serve.
Source: Chef Nigel Lobo, Stars N Bars