All About Tempeh (and a Killer Salad)

Seared asian tempeh salad w miso dressing

All images © James Ransom for Food52

No food is more closely associated with veganism, at least in the popular imagination, than tofu (with the possible exception of sprouts). Versatile and nutrient-dense though tofu is, I’ve always thought that it is unduly favored over its fellow soybean-based cousin, tempeh. Today, I’m here to argue that you should get to know tempeh if you haven’t already, and I’m sharing a recipe that I hope will help you to fall in love with this nutritious and unusual ingredient.

While I was researching tempeh a little for today’s Food52 column, I was surprised to learn that tempeh is Indonesian in origin, and not Chinese (like tofu). Soybeans may have been farmed in China as early as the 11th century B.C., but the first written records date to around 2000 B.C.. By the first century A.D., soybeans had spread to Korea, and by the 7th century, they were being cultivated in Japan. Ultimately, they spread to Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, Nepal and northern India. The earliest written reference to tempeh dates back to the 19th century, though it is likely that it was a traditional Indonesian food for many years before that.

Tempeh is made by fermenting whole, cooked soybeans with Rhizopus oligosporus, a mold that encourages the growth of Bacillus subtilis (a bacteria that may be used as a beneficial probiotic). The world “mold” is far from appealing, but the process of tempeh making, honed through time and practice already, is now conducted under safe and controlled conditions. The fermentation process binds tempeh together into blocks (traditionally, it was wrapped in banana leaves throughout this process), and it can subsequently be sliced and used in stir fries, on salads, or however you like.


Me? I like to marinate and sear my tempeh in a bit of coconut oil. And in today’s “new veganism” column over at Food52, I give you a recipe for a perfect tempeh marinade, as well as cooking instructions. As an extra incentive to eat this wonderful food, I’m giving you a recipe for a tasty, crunchy salad with red cabbage, snow peas, and mizuna, all dressed in a sweet/salty miso mustard dressing. Phew.

A four ounce serving of tempeh contains 20 (!) grams of protein, about 20% of your daily RDA iron, and about 10% of your RDA of calcium. It also contains nearly half of the official RDA of fiber (11 grams–though getting even more fiber than that is well worth it for many people.) Such a rich offering of nourishment is good reason for you to discover tempeh, but don’t do it for the nutrition stats. Explore tempeh because it is satisfying and delicious—and because this salad recipe is killer Smile



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  1. Conceded to tempeh, I incline toward it more than tofu for it’s heartier protein substance, flexibility, and nutty flavor. Worship adding it to crude plates of mixed greens or into mix fries, yet I’d get a kick out of the chance to get much more imaginative with it.

  2. Tempeh is very healthy for you that’s why the Asians are ingestion it for hundreds of years. The fermentation process creates natural friendly microorganism (probiotics) that are terribly smart for supporting your gastrointestinal system

  3. If you make your own tempeh (see you can make it with organic or non GMO soybeans which are widely available – also, you can make excellent non soy tempeh (see – under Notes/experiments) , last week we made a very tasty and quite firm tempeh with hulled barley and Kamut.

  4. I love tempeh as well and this particular salad looks amazing. I’m going to give this a go. Many thanks for sharing your recipe.

  5. Made the dressing and tempeh. The dressing is absolutely wonderful, Gena! I thought I had enough for a few meals but today I demolished the rest of the dressing with simply red cabbage. 🙂

  6. Made this tonight, loved it! I make so many of the recipes you post throughout the week. Thanks for all the ideas!!

  7. Hi Gena,

    Very informative post.

    Thank you very much for sharing. I’ve never heard of Tempeh before, it looks lush.

    Will be sure to give this a go.

    Keep up the great work.

    Sarah x

  8. I’m not a huge fan of store-bought tempeh. But have you tried Barry’s Tempeh. It’s made by this guy in Brooklyn who sells it frozen to stores in NYC and at Smorgasburg in Williamsburg on Saturdays. Next time you’re back in NYC, you have to try it. It’s incredible. Here’s his website:

  9. I had never heard of Tempeh before reading your article here. Fascinating how it is derived from Soy Beans and then fermented. You would never know from looking at it. will definately be on the look out for it when eating out next.

  10. Tempeh is very healthy for you that’s why the Asians have been eating it for centuries. The fermentation process creates natural friendly bacteria (probiotics) that are very good for supporting your digestive system.

    Your salad looks delicious and I will definitely give it a go.

  11. Tempeh is something I like when I have it at restaurants, but rarely am ambitious enough to incorporate into recipes at home. I don’t know why, but I am definitely inspired by this recipe. The dressing looks fantastic too. Thanks!

  12. I’m thrilled you were able to get tempeh highlighted in a mainstream site like food 52. I love it and feel like its so unfairly underrated compared to tofu.

    • I was so, so happy too! I really consider it to be a magical ingredient (nourishing, delicious, interesting, versatile).

  13. soy is on the list of top-GMO foods…

    i’d also be weary of soy’s estrogen-mimicking compounds…

    however…to each their own.

    • Zosia,

      A large number of tofu and tempeh producing companies are now offering non-GMO certified and organic products. They include Nasoya, Wildwood, Woodstock, Twin Oaks, Lightlife, 365 (the Whole Foods brand), and Mori-Nu — among many others. The GMO soy we read about as so prevalent is often the soy used in processed foods or for feed in animal ag.

      As for the estrogen-mimicking, there is little evidence that soy (eaten in moderation and as part of a varied diet) is a major hormone disruptor, and a lot of evidence that it works differently from actual estrogen in the human body–though some evidence does suggest it may play a protective role in recurrence of breast cancer in women. A number of vegan health professionals have written very well on this topic. Ginny Messina is particularly knowledgeable:

      Dr. Joel Fuhrman rounds up a number of good studies:

      And Dr. Neal Barnard has also weighed in, citing a number of useful articles:

      Of course, no single person’s endorsement is sufficient to draw a conclusion, so I really recommend that you go on PubMed and read all of the articles cited. There are also many other articles, many of them review articles, so you should be able to find a great deal of information and draw your own conclusions. Some of the review pieces are slightly older (late 90′s), but their findings remain compelling. Note that in relatively few of these articles is a distinction made between fermented and non-fermented soy, except that some studies have examined fermented soy as a source of probiotics–which is an added plus.

      It’s easy for new vegans to eat soy in unnecessary and excessive quantities, but on balance, moderate soy consumption remains a healthy part of a vegan diet. I agree with you completely that being discerning about one’s sourcing is a good idea.


  14. I love tempeh, but this dressing looks like it would be the highlight of the dish for me! Oh, and I finally started a blog! You part of the inspiration 🙂

  15. Agreed on tempeh, I prefer it more than tofu for it’s heartier protein content, versatility, and nutty flavor. Adore adding it to raw salads or into stir fries, but I’d like to get even more creative with it.

  16. I’ve tried to love tempeh, we’ve had a rocky relationship. Maybe serving it over a Killer Kale salad would help rekindle our flame.

  17. I’m having tempeh leftovers for lunch! I haven’t eaten it in so long, but this week’s recipe reminded me that I need to start buying it again. Thanks, Gena!

  18. This is perfect timing! I recently bought two big blocks of tempeh (one sea veggie flavour) but have been struggling with how to cook them in a variety of ways. I look forward to trying this recipe 🙂

  19. Yum!!! So glad to see my favorite soy based food highlighted. It deserves it! Given that I love to eat uncooked tempeh, earthy taste and all, I’m obviously somewhat biased, but I think it’s one of the most bank for your buck nutritious (and satisfying and versatile and…) foods out there. And, unlike tofu and other forms of soy, due to the fermentation process and the perhaps due to grain combination/fiber – I never experience any digestive “backup” issues that I sometimes encounter with (esp.) tofu. My favorite marinade is probably a slightly modified version of Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s orange glazed tempeh (freshly squeezed orange juice, freshly grated ginger, garlic, coriander, a bit of sticky sweetener of choice.) I also like it marinaded and seared or baked in barbecue sauce or sauteed unflavored in a pan til crispy using a bit of sesame oil.

    (Super interesting history lesson re. the origins of tempeh.)

    Happy weekend, Gena 🙂

    • Right?? I had no idea, re: the origins of tempeh. Very interesting.

      I think your experience with tempeh vs. tofu digestion is not an uncommon one, Karen! I’m glad it works so well for you (I digest it very well, too). And I agree entirely — it’s such an incredible “bang for your buck” food. Taste, versatility, and so much nutrition, all in one place.

  20. Thanks for the inspiration, Gena! I bought some tempeh a week ago after a veeeeeery long time of not eating it and I’m still staring at the package each time I open the fridge, totally bewildered. Gonna give this a shot.

    • Ooh that sounds really interesting! I will be checking it out! I’ve never had Tempeh before – but it looks delicious. Definitely adding it to the list for the next shopping trip!

  21. Looks delicious Gena!
    I started incorporating tempeh into my meals about a year or so ago, but truly fell in love with it when I ordered the BBQ Smoked Tempeh dish at The Plant in San Francisco… I still dream about that dinner, very excited to go back this May!
    My husband wasn’t a huge fan at first, he found it to be very heavy. I think I have finally mastered the art of cooking it, he’s really enjoying it now! Looks like I’m about to learn much more from your Food52 post… I may have to try this for dinner tonight!!

  22. amazing! i LOVE tempeh!! its so nutty and rich.. totally more satisfying than tofu! it actually has a flavour and i sometimes even eat it raw. it might not be a great idea for everyones belly but i enjoy it so much. perfect paired with tamari or peanutty sauces… like satay. i am always eating a ton of it when i am in bali! yum!