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Tempeh: Vegan & Vegetarian Meat-free Soya Protein

Updated on October 7, 2012

Vegan & Veggie Cooking: What Is Tempeh?

What is tempeh? If you are a recent convert to the vegan or vegetarian way of life, then you may have heard something about this versatile and tasty vegan protein source. But perhaps you feel you don’t really know enough about it to start using it? What is tempeh, anyhow?

Tempeh is a protein-rich soya bean product, usually used in savoury dishes. It is a ‘cake’ of fermented soya beans, which are inoculated and bound together using a tempeh starter.

Is tempeh a ‘traditional’ product? By that I mean, is it a food that is widely and traditionally eaten in the Asian cultures where it is perceived to spring from? Looking at many Japanese and other Asian culture cookery books, it would be easy to assume so. However, if you go shopping in many ethnic grocery shops and supermarkets, then you may have the same experience that I have had more than once. This is the experience of finding no tempeh in the store, asking the staff if they are just out of stock or don’t normally stock tempeh – and finding that they have no idea what you are talking about!

This experience leads me to conclude that tempeh is not a familiar and widely used foodstuff in all Asian cultures. It is believed to have originated in Indonesia where it is massively popular and widely used, and otherwise is rather specific to vegetarian, vegan and wholefood cuisines. It’s still a great staple and protein source, though!1

What can you cook with tempeh? As a protein source it is great in soups, stews and stir-fries and is a fantastic combo with all kinds of vegetables. A lot of vegans also like to slice it thinly and fry it as a substitute for bacon. As a vegan bacon substitute it isn’t an exact reproduction of the flavour and texture, but it’s close enough to make a very satisfying sandwich or breakfast!

Can non-vegans use tempeh to make tasty and satisfying meals? Well, it’s a low-fat and high protein option, so if you’re a health-conscious carnivore you might still want to bear it in mind as an option. There are tempeh recipes all over the internet, you can make tempeh curry, or tempeh stir-fry, or tempeh anything else: don’t restrict yourself to just one or two tempeh recipes because there are hundreds out there!

Are you having a little trouble sourcing tempeh, either from bricks and mortar stores or purchasing online? If you cannot find a local tempeh source then there are websites where you should be able to buy all the tempeh you could possibly desire, including on Amazon and other sites e.g. Goodnessdirect. There are flavoured and unusual types available, including bacon-style slices from some manufacturers.

How does tempeh stand up as a source of protein? What are soya beans health benefits? If we're looking at soya tempeh (rather than the wide number of grain and bean variants) then soya beans can have over thirty-five per cent protein content and are a low-fat option (prior to cooking with oil or fat.) In terms of nutrients, it is a good source of iron and calcium, as well as having an amino acid make-up complementary to that of grains and providing high-quality protein content in itself.1

Can you eat too much tempeh and other soya products? Some experts have claimed that soya products contain hormonally active chemicals and in excess can influence male hormone activity e.g building of muscle.2 If you have concerns then you should consult your medical or nutritional professional and keep an eye on governmental nutritional advice updates.

Enjoy your tempeh recipes, cooking and consumption – it’s a great and tasty source of vegan protein!


1. Shurtleff, W., Aoyagi, A. "The book of tempeh, Volume 1." New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1979.

2. Rhodes, P. "Better Safe Than Soy." Best Life. April 2006, pp. 60-62.


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