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Journey To Java's 'Tempeh Village': Where Soybean Cakes Are Born

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For centuries, Asia has been home to sophisticated vegetarian cultures. In recent years, Americans have gradually discovered cooking with meat substitutes like tofu and an Indonesia soybean cake called tempeh.

Tempeh is known for being versatile. There's an almost endless variety of ways to cook it. My favorite is perhaps one of the simplest: Cut it into thin slices, cover it in spices and crushed coriander seeds, and pan-fry it in a little oil until it's golden brown.

In Indonesia — and particularly on the island of Java — tempeh is so basic to the daily diet, you could almost call it meat-and-potatoes fare. Well, minus the meat maybe.

It's made using a unique process of fermentation, and I was curious to see how that works, so I visited Kebun Jeruk village, in west Jakarta. It's a working-class neighborhood of simple, low-rise homes. The locals call it Tempeh Village.

Mr. Hendoko (who goes by just one name) is the manager of a cooperative here that provides roughly a third of Jakarta's tempeh.

"We have 1,417 tempeh-making households here, all under one cooperative," Hendoko says. "The cooperative produces nearly 2 tons of tempeh a day."

Hendoko says tempeh has been part of the local culture for centuries. "My world revolves around tempeh," he says. "I have tempeh every day. Even though there are other dishes, a meal just wouldn't feel the same without tempeh."

After walking through the village, we come to a communal kitchen where the beans are prepared and boiled. Men stripped to the waist are washing and husking the beans over big barrels.

It's a Dickensian scene of sweat, sinew and soybeans. It's also somewhat refreshing to find a product that, in an age of supermarkets and hermetic packaging, is still wrapped in banana leaves and sold in local bazaars.

Ironically, the soybeans in this quintessentially Indonesian food are imported from the U.S.

Hendoko says the beans are then taken from the kitchen back to the individual families that will make them into cakes of tempeh. "First, we mix the clean and split beans with some yeast," he explains. "Then we pack them into cakes. And we put the cakes on these drying racks to ferment for 18 hours."

He shows us a small brick made of cassava starch that's used to make the mold or fungus that causes the beans to ferment. It's what makes the beans stick together. It has no particular smell to it, and when I eat the tempeh, I don't think I taste it — only the smoky, nutty, mushroomy, meaty taste of the tempeh.

According to Hendoko, it's that fermentation that makes tempeh so healthy, and allows people to digest all those high-protein soybeans without ballooning up with gas.

Hendoko's daughter has found new outlets for the tempeh: She fries it up as crispy chips, reminiscent of Pringles, which she sells over the Internet.

Ultimately, he has sky-high expectations for his village's products: "I think that with government support and media promotion, in 20 years' time, tempeh will conquer the world."

Global domination by cakes of fermented soybeans, in two decades' time? Sounds like a tall order. Then again, a few decades back, who would have guessed that raw fish, wasabi and rice balls would catch on in the U.S.?

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