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.