The Jew And The Carrot

Sexier Than Tofu? A Tempeh Affair

By Alix Wall

  • Print
  • Share Share
Alix Wall

This article originally appeared in j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California.

When Steven Kent did an internship at The Farm, a hippie commune in rural Tennessee, he had an epiphany. Eating a steady diet of sauerkraut, pickled vegetables, sourdough bread and other fermented foods, he found the digestive problems that had plagued him since college largely vanished.

From Sandor Katz, whose book “Wild Fermentation” is widely considered the bible of fermented foods, Kent learned about tempeh, a soybean product that’s originally from Indonesia.

The encounter with this little-known Asian staple changed the life of this Jewish guy from Virginia in a major way.

In Oakland some time later, a friend showed him how to make it. When he fried some up, he found it was “so good” that about a year ago he used his bar mitzvah savings to start his own artisanal, small-batch tempeh company, called Alive & Healing. In addition to being sold in the freezer case at San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery and the Santa Rosa farmers market, his tempeh can be delivered straight to your Bay Area home.

Kent, who is 27 and goes by the name Stem, works out of an industrial kitchen space in Windsor, in Sonoma County. He suggested I come on a Wednesday, to see one batch of tempeh cooked and processed, and another finished and packaged. In a few hours, I got a good idea of how the tangy-better-than-tofu product is made.

An aside: Some 20 years ago, I visited a tempeh “factory” — which was really a woman’s house — on the island of Java. The modern machinery used in production here had little in common with what I saw in Indonesia: tiny packages of soybeans wrapped in banana leaves piled in the corner to ferment, with Koranic verses hanging on the wall overhead next to a poster of Guns N’ Roses. But I digress.

The process at Alive & Healing begins with cooking 65 pounds of organic precracked (important, since the culture grows on the inside of the bean) soybeans for about three hours. Once the beans are soft, Kent uses a food-grade plastic cement mixer, both to get rid of the moisture, which inhibits the culture, and to cool the beans down. As the beans are spinning, he adds rice vinegar, which helps the culture grow.

Once cooled, the beans go into perforated plastic bags, and Kent evens them out with a rolling pin. Then they go into an incubator at 88 degrees for a day and a half, after which they are hand-sliced, packaged and labeled. The yield is 115 pounds of tempeh.

For the science geeks among you: A fungus called Rhizopus oligosporus is responsible for turning the cracked soybeans into tempeh. It’s what causes a culture to grow between the beans, binding them and turning them into one mass.

If you are already a tempeh devotee, what you probably buy is flash-pasteurized, which gives it a longer shelf life. Alive & Healing is unpasteurized, which means it’s fresher and must be kept in the freezer. According to Gwen Weiss, a nutritionist and vegan chef who is Kent’s life partner and helps him with the business, “It’s a live cultured food. It retains its beneficial bacteria and enzymes and the probiotics that help our gut digest and keep us healthy.”

Tempeh is particularly good sautéed in a bit of coconut oil, Weiss said, but one of her favorite suggested uses is in a tempeh taco. She cooks the crumbles with Mexican spices and serves it in a corn tortilla with steamed kale and salsa.

Kent pointed out that most vegetarian alternatives to meat on the market are highly processed, with lots of additives, unnatural colors and flavors. Tempeh is lightly processed, but is still a whole food, with nothing but vinegar added to the soybeans.

“The more we learn about how our meat is raised and farmed, it’s great to know about other alternatives that feel sustainable and that we can feel good about,” he said.

While he hates to dis tofu, tempeh, he says, is so much sexier.

While Kent is working on getting Alive & Healing into more stores, he hopes the delivery business takes off, as he values the personal relationships that come from producing food on a small scale. “I wanted to assist our power of changing our food system by inspiring people to come together. It’s a different model of connection to sustainable, local food, where it feels home-grown and has a face behind it.”

Alix Wall is a personal chef in the East Bay and beyond. Visit her website here.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Tempeh, Jewish Vegans, Jewish Tempeh

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.