If you are well versed in the popular proteins available to vegans and vegetarians, chances are that you’ve run across tempeh at some point. Additionally, if you’ve ever lived in a city like Boulder, Austin, or Portland, I would be shocked if you’d never seen it peddled in some form out of a painfully (yet earnestly) hip vegan food truck. Some may be surprised to learn that tempeh is not just a trendy vegan ingredient, but in fact is a traditional Indonesian product – a slightly fermented soybean cake – that has been a big part of Javanese cuisine for centuries! Many of my own friends forget that I lived in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city on the island of Java, for 8 years beginning at the age of 6, and I can distinctly remember eating crispy, spicy tempeh dishes. Admittedly I was not a huge fan of it when I was younger, because these dishes tended to be a bit too spicy for an American child’s palate! Ever since I was reintroduced to it in Boulder, Colorado, when my vegetarian adventure truly began, my love affair with tempeh arose. I have had it in so many forms because it is a great protein source with a meaty texture that is more satisfying than tofu, but with similarly neutral flavors that soak up whatever spices or sauces you add to it. This dish is inspired by a traditional Indonesian recipe that is wonderfully sticky, savory, sweet and spicy, utilizing sweet soy sauce (kecap manis) which adds molasses-like sweetness but also a lot of depth of flavor to many southeast Asian recipes. Therefore it is imperative that you go out and get a bottle of the real thing for this recipe – whether you buy it from Amazon or your local Asian store. You can find tempeh at most Whole Foods or other natural grocery stores.
- 400 g (2 packages) tempeh
- 1 liter vegetable oil (or other low smoke point oil for frying)
- 1 large onion or 6 small shallots
- 3 large cloves garlic
- 1 large piece of ginger (~ 1 T)
- 2 lemongrass stalks
- 2 bay leaves
- 4 red chilies
- 2 T soy sauce
- 4-5 T sweet soy sauce (kecap/kicap manis)
- One small lime
- Cilantro (coriander leaves) for garnish
- Large heavy bottomed or cast iron pot
- Slotted spoon
- Food processor
Frying the tempeh:
Cut the tempeh into matchsticks. Meanwhile, heat the 1L of oil on medium-high in a large cast iron pot, or any other heavy-bottomed pot that is sufficiently tall. The oil should be about 2 inches deep. If the pot isn’t tall enough, you run the risk of your oil bubbling over and making a huge mess!
If you have a thermometer, heat the oil until it is between 375-390 F. If the temperature is too low, your tempeh will absorb a lot of oil (which will be gross and inedible) and won’t brown. If it’s too hot, your tempeh will burn! If you don’t have a thermometer, first test the oil by dropping one drop of water into it. If it sputters violently (hence the small drop!) then it may be ready. Test it by dropping in one piece of tempeh, and see if it browns and turns crispy after 1-2 minutes. Once you hae achieved this outcome, the oil is ready!
Using a slotted spoon, gently lower the tempeh pieces into the hot oil. Fry the tempeh in at least 2 batches, because you don’t want to overcrowd the pot. Remove tempeh with the slotted spoon after 1-2 minutes, or after the pieces have browned. Place fried tempeh on a plate covered with a few layers of paper towels to absorb excess oil. Ideally, the tempeh should be crunchy and not at all greasy. Repeat the frying process until you have fried the whole batch, then remove the pot from the heat to let the oil cool.
Making the spice paste:
To make the spice paste, in a food processor combine the onion (peeled and quartered), garlic cloves, ginger (peeled and cut into a few pieces), and only the tender inner stems of the lemongrass stalks, also cut into a few pieces. Process the mixture well until it is all finely minced.
Putting it all together:
When the oil has cooled in your frying pot, use a ladle (and funnel if you have one) to transfer the oil into large glass jars, pouring over a sieve or other sort of strainer to filter out any pieces of tempeh. You can store this oil in your cupboard and re-use it for frying at a later date!
Leave about 2 tablespoons of oil in the pot, and heat it on medium heat. Once warm, add the spice paste from the food processor, and the 2 bay leaves. Sautee about 5 minutes until the onion is nicely softened and translucent. Thinly slice the chilies diagonally, removing the seeds for a milder recipe, or choosing to keep them in if you like it spicy! Add these to the pot and sautee an additional 1-2 minutes.
To finish, add the fried tempeh pieces to the pot, then pour over the soy sauce and kecap manis, mixing well but gently to try not to break the tempeh pieces. Taste a piece and add a bit more soy sauce or kecap manis to adjust to your taste. Finally, turn off the heat, then squeeze the lime over the pot and gently mix everything. Serve garnished with cilantro leaves and a drizzle of kicap manis. Eat the tasty tempeh over a pile of rice with a side of salad or veggies!