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Tempeh in a teapot: A bit of mould, a mound of soybeans and a lack of spoonbills



“That’s it! I’m not eating carbohydrates!”

So shouted my husband early one Saturday morning shortly before Christmas as he was drinking his usual vat of coffee and I, already bewildered due to my eternal inability to function properly before, say, 11 a.m., felt even more perplexed since neither of us had been saying a thing and I don’t think there was a dreaded carbohydrate in sight.

Then I realized he was listening to an interview on the radio with science writer Gary Taubes discussing his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, which “challenges the conventional wisdom on diet, weight control and disease.” According to Mr. Taubes, an award-winning correspondent for Science magazine, it ain’t the saturated fats or the sedentary lifestyle that ails us, it’s the carbs, with their impact on insulin secretion, and the sugars, especially sucrose and that high-octane/high-fructose corn syrup, that are our weighty undoing.

So no carbs it was for Peter, or at least very few, quite the sacrifice for a bread and cookie lover amidst a holiday freezer full of good bread and Christmas baking, and other assorted jolly-holiday carbs.

Despite earlier misgivings, I have to admit some half-year later, that I hand it to him. He’s down a pant size or two and has recently added small amounts of decent whole grain complex-type carbs back into his diet, which now reminds me of that of my diabetic god-daughter’s.

I’m even off much of my usual carbo-hydration, cutting that mound of rice to a modest spoonful or three and grabbing a handful of raw almonds instead of my usual chips.

Given his track record, I’m now paying attention to Peter’s latest fancy, tempeh — no big surprise given he’s usually ferreting out something or other off the beaten path.

At first I had no idea what he was talking about, until I started poking around and learned that it’s a fermented soy product from Indonesia. So that’s what that was in a veggie stir fry-type dish I had in Surabaya on the island of Java and couldn’t figure out. And here I thought it was just the residuals from malaria that had cooked my brain.

Tempeh, according to Harold Gee in On Food and Cooking , was invented in Indonesia, and is totally suited to that hot, humid tropical climate. It’s made by cooking whole soybeans (without the hulls), forming them into thin layers and then fermenting them with a mould, Rhizopus oligosporus or R. oryzae, for 24 hours at a warm, tropical temperature (30-33 Celsius). The mould grows and makes long thread-like hyphae (a network of fine white filaments that make up the vegetative part of a fungus), which penetrate the beans and bind them together. As the mould grows, it also digests “a significant part” of the oil and protein in the soybeans and transforms them into tasty bits that some people much prefer to the taste of tofu.

Fresh tempeh has a yeasty, mushroomy fragrance, and when sliced and fried it develops a nutty, almost meaty flavour that many a vegetarian or vegan, including many Buddhists, find appealing in their cuisine.

Traditionally, Southeast Asian cuisines have used tempeh, including Thai cookery. But now Swedish scientists have developed something of a doppelgänger that can be made from oats and barley — crops grown in northern climates — and still deliver the health benefits of tempeh.

Their study showed that the uptake of iron doubled after people ate barley fermented and made into tempe, as they call it (but I think of Tempe as a city in Arizona). As well, people showed low blood-sugar and insulin responses, which are more typical of whole-grain foods and part of the goal of the above mentioned low-carb/no-carb diet.

The Swedish-made tempe is also cited as a good source of the B vitamin, folate, and it delivers the usual health benefits associated with whole grains and pulses: resistance to cardiovascular disease, some forms of cancer and age-related diabetes.

Whether it’s your waistline or the waste of eating meat you’re concerned about, or perhaps it’s just another unusual food group your curious about, it’s worth giving tempeh a whirl. You may have to ask to find it; some grocers keep it, or products made from tempeh, in the freezer department. And given it will be barbecue season, as soon as this crazy weather breaks, the following recipe will give you some pretty tasty results on your first tempeh try:


Tempeh kabobs with Moroccan couscous



1 (8 oz) package tempeh, cut into 1/2-inch squares

16 fresh white mushrooms

1 medium eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 large red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces

16 cherry tomatoes

8 tbsp olive oil

4 tbsp soy sauce

4 tbsp teriyaki sauce

3 tbsp honey

1 tbsp grated fresh ginger root

1 tbsp chopped fresh garlic

Salt and pepper to taste



2 c vegetable broth

1 tbsp grated fresh ginger root

1 tsp ground cumin

Salt to taste

1 c dry couscous

3/4 c raisins

3/4 c drained, canned chick peas (garbanzo beans)

1 lemon


Place tempeh, mushrooms, eggplant, red bell pepper, and cherry tomatoes in a large, re-sealable plastic bag. In a bowl, whisk together olive oil, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, and honey; add the ginger, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Pour mixture over tempeh and veggies, seal, and shake to coat. Refrigerate for 2 hours. Preheat grill on medium-high. Thread tempeh and veggies on skewers. Reserve remaining marinade. Grill skewers, turning often, for about 15 minutes. (These can also be done in the broiler.)

While grilling kabobs, combine vegetable broth, ginger, cumin, and salt. Bring to a light boil. Stir in couscous, raisins and garbanzo beans; cover, and remove from heat. Let sit for five minutes, or until fluffy. Just before serving, squeeze lemon over couscous and stir. Serve kabobs with reserved marinade.



Trends in all things edible do come and go. The Culinary History of Food notes that Europeans developed a new taste for vegetables round about the second half of the 16th century. As the number of plant species served at “better tables” increased, the number of animal species decreased, with animals such as cormorants, storks, swans, cranes, bitterns, spoonbills, herons, peacocks, whales, seals and porpoises disappearing from cookbooks and from markets, thank goodness some naturalists would say. One exception was scoters, those large black diving ducks with the fancy, bright orange bills you can see plying the waters of our coast in winter. Despite their obvious bird-like attributes, such as feathers, these were classified as “fish” by the church and as such were deemed suitable for Lent for a considerable time.


Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who finally saw her first spoonbill in Costa Rica, thankfully not in a pot.

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