Adventures in Tempeland

American Tempeh Maker Visits the Motherland

By Seth Tibbott

The Pasar Bedang market in central Denpassar, Bali is a three-story rabbit warren of stalls, smells, and humanity unlike any other. As my wife, Sue, my 5-year-old son, Luke, and I slithered through the crowded maze of a fruits-and-vegetables section on the ground floor, women reached out to Luke with friendly hands saying "Hello, boy." He hated the attention, but even more he hated the smell which was rising in intensity as we approached the "protein" section straight ahead. Turning left between a table full of exotic bird eggs and one piled high with dried, fly-infested fish, I first saw what I had traveled halfway around the world to see-native Indonesian tempe (spelled "tempeh" in the USA). It was piled neatly on a table in the humid afternoon heat of the tropics. One pile was cut into approximately 1.5-pound pieces and wrapped in the traditional green banana leaves that were pinned with little sticks. The other, smaller, half-pound size was wrapped in the more Western perforated plastic bag and appeared to be of poorer quality. A small crowd gathered around as we purchased the larger, banana-wrapped product for the standard 500 rupiah (about 20 US cents). We were the most unusual oddities-tempeh makers from the land of beef and wealth across the same ocean that lapped in the distance.

It took very little persuading to make the decision to come to Indonesia. It was a "no brainer" to accept the Yayasan Tempe Foundation's proposal to present a paper on "The State of the North American Tempe Market" at their International Tempe Symposium in Bali. After all, I have been making tempeh professionally for 18 years at Turtle Island Foods (now the second largest tempeh producer in the United States). For years, we had listened to the stories of tempeh-making in the motherland from our loyal Indonesian customers. It was past time to see it first-hand.

There was a taste of irony that the Symposium was held at the 5-star Kartika Plaza Hotel of Kuta Beach on Bali. Kuta Beach, and Bali in general, are not the most fertile havens for tempe makers or consumers in Indonesia. Indonesia-the fifth most populous country on earth-is a diverse land of many islands and many cultures. It is said that one sixth of the world's languages are spoken on these islands! Bali has two obvious forces that distinguish it from the rest of Indonesia-its Hindu cultural roots (the rest of Indonesia is predominantly Muslim) and the impact of tourism. With the vast influx of visitors from all over the world, an eclectic blending of cultures and food tastes has occurred. Whereas tempe is made and consumed on Bali, it is much less prevalent and rooted in the culture than it is on Java, the most populous island of the Indonesian archipelago.

While the conference itself was a mostly scientific gathering, it did provide many practical insights into the place of tempe in the Indonesian culture. In the past, then-president Suharto had exhorted his people, "Don't be a tempe nation." By this he meant, grow past the impoverished country lifestyle and become more modern and Western-tempe being a symbol of "poor people's food." At the keynote address of this conference, Mr. Joop Ave, the Indonesian Minister of Telecommuni-cations and Tourism, tried to create a new image for tempe. He told of a recent movement to "Indonesianize" the presidential palace and proudly serve tempe to heads of state as an example of Indonesian ethnic food. He fervently extolled the virtues of eating tempe and tahu (tofu). "The American concept of meat eating is almost offensive," said Mr. Ave. "We need to make it trendy for people to eat tempe." Sadly, the conference turned out to be long on scientific studies and short on marketing research, although there was a rich display of innovative tempe products in an adjoining hall that included: tempe miso from Japan, chicken flavored tempe chips, and tempe breakfast cereal.

Every day we were served a vast buffet lunch from the hotel. Besides the great variety of Indonesian tempe dishes, such as sambal goreng tempe (spicy fried tempe with rice), tempe mendoan (slices of batter-fried tempe), and tempe croquettes, meat was always served as well. It was interesting to note that whereas nearly everyone in Indonesia loves and eats tempe, they are not a particularly vegetarian country. The same scientists that produced the papers on Tempe Consumption Patterns in Indonesia would load up their plates with plenty of beef and chicken, as well as tempe, at lunch.

While in Indonesia, I visited three different sized tempe shops. The smallest was a little shop in Ubud, Bali which makes about 100 pounds per day, and the largest was Pak Pedro Sudjono's factory in Yogyakarta, Java, which makes 5,000 pounds per day! Here are my brief impressions of those shops:

Tempe Ubud

Ubud has long been the artistic center of Bali. Surrounding this mountainous town are small villages that produce everything from furniture and woodcarvings to paintings and toys. The country's deep spirituality is omnipresent here, with many temples and shrines scattered about the hinterlands. Tempe Ubud is owned and operated by a small family group of four adults and several small children. Fifty kilos of tempe are made each day in the house that also serves as the family's living quarters. When we arrived at mid-morning, a man was cooling the cooked beans by hand in a large bamboo colander placed on the floor of the front porch. The tempe from the day before was incubating in small 3"x 3" perforated plastic bags, each of which weighed about 3 ounces. These small cakes were incubated for two days on wooden slats in a dark room next to the main living area. A bicycle-powered mill, the colander, an aluminum cooking pot, and a heat sealer were the only pieces of equipment. The 3-ounce cakes were sold to restaurants and were available in the market for 150 rupiah (about six US cents).

Tempe Murni

Located in back of an oil depot in the heart of industrial Denpassar sits Tempe Murni. This is a substantial operation, producing 750 kilos of tempe seven days per week, 30 days per month. The proprietors, Mr. Marso, and his wife Pukita, employ 10 young men in this operation. The employees work eight hours per day, 30 days per month, and are paid 100,000 rupiah (about $42 US dollars) each month. This is considered a good job, and several papers wondered what impact the loss of these jobs would have on the Indonesian economy if tempe were to be produced in modern, efficient factories. The soybeans are cooked in delidded 55-gallon drums placed over propane burners. Two sweaty, bare-chested men were skimming the hulls off the beans with plastic colanders.

 Two others were cooling and packaging cooked beans in perforated plastic bags in another room. The beans were piled not on the floor but on a piece of white canvas. Tempe Murni sells 250 grams of finished tempe for 400 rupiah (16 US cents) to their distributors who sell it in the market for 500 rupiah (21 US cents). It is interesting to note that in Indonesia, tempe is viewed as "poor people's food" and is largely purchased as inexpensive protein. Yet in the United States at $1.89 per 8-ounce pack, tempeh is seen as being "natural" food and relatively expensive compared to, say, ground meat at $1.69 per pound. Yet when one compares the cost of tempe in Indonesia and the US to the per capita income of their respective countries ($540 USD and $23,000 USD) a cake of tempe is actually more than four times "cheaper" in the United States!

Pak Pedro Sudjono's Tempe

Yogyakarta has always been viewed as the cultural capital of Indonesia. It is also, I learned at the Symposium, the city with the highest per capita consumption of tempe in all of Indonesia. On a weekly basis, the average person in Yogyakarta consumes nearly 200 grams of tempe versus only 75 grams per Balinese citizen. This shows in the local market, which is totally inundated by a large variety of tempe products, both raw cakes and prepared in various sauces. The main supplier of all this is Pak Pedro Sudjono, a local actor, politician, and tempe maker. This innovative plant produces 5,000 pounds of product each day from a 1,500 square foot area. The shop does have a gas-fired boiler and copper kettle for cooking the beans, but everything else is done with the same level of technology witnessed elsewhere (bamboo colanders on the floor for mixing and packaging, etc.). What is unique about this shop is the ingenious barter system that exists here. The main operation is run by a paid staff of 24 people, but the filling is almost all done by local women who sit on the floor and seal the inoculated beans in plastic bags, sometimes melting the plastic by running it near the open flame of a cloth wick stuck into a soda can filled with kerosene! After the bags are sealed, the women pack them up into the cloth sacks the beans came in, load them onto bicycles, and pedal the load home. There they incubate them for several days and, when white and ripe, take them to the local market for sale! It was in Yogyakarta that I noticed small, one-ounce packages of tempe incubated for an extra long time in banana leaves and sold for 25 rupiah (about one US cent!).

Our time in Indonesia ended all too soon, with many places left to explore. Soon after our visit, the Indonesian economy crashed, taking President-for-life Suharto with it. To this day, the challenges that face the Indonesian people are staggering. One thing I know for sure is that somehow throughout all of this upheaval, tempe is still being made in its own funky, time-honored way by some of the hardest working and friendliest people on the planet. The culture that binds the beans together binds the people as well.

Seth Tibbott is CEO of Turtle Island Foods, manufacturer of Tofurky, tempeh, and other products.