Journey To Java's 'Tempeh Village': Where Soybean Cakes Are Born : The Salt Whether it's pan-fried or baked into crispy snacks, the Indonesian soybean cake called tempeh is catching on in America as an alternative to meat. For the residents of Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, it's basic, everyday fare.
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Journey To Java's 'Tempeh Village': Where Soybean Cakes Are Born

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

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

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This network sends foreign correspondents abroad to bring you the latest news of wars, coups, protests, and the economy. But often a better way to learn about a changing world is to sample the local cuisine. Which is what our correspondent Anthony Kuhn did in the capital of Indonesia. In that part of the world, vegetarian cultures are centuries old, built around foods like the Indonesian soybean cake called tempeh.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Tempeh is one of the most versatile foods and there's an almost endless variety of ways you can cook it. I myself actually prefer one of the simplest, which is just to coat it in spices and pan-fry it.


KUHN: First, I'm going to take a stone mortar and pestle and grind up some coriander seeds and some garlic and salt. Then I just take the sliced pieces of tempeh and dip them in the spices, and then pan-fry them until they're golden brown.


KUHN: I'm aware, of course, that in the U.S., tempeh has a reputation as hippie food, but here in Indonesia, and particularly on the island of Java, tempeh is so basic to the daily diet you could just about call it meat-and-potatoes fare - well, minus the meat maybe.

Tempeh is made using a unique process of fermentation. And I'm curious to see how that works, so I've come to a place locals call...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Tempeh Village. It's a working-class neighborhood of simple, low-rise homes. Our host is Mr. Hendoko, who goes by just one name.


HENDOKO: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: He's the manager of this cooperative that provides roughly a third of Jakarta's tempeh.

HENDOKO: (Through Translator) We have 1,417 tempeh-making households here. The cooperative produces nearly two tons of tempeh a day.

KUHN: Hendoko says tempeh has been a part of the local culture for centuries.

HENDOKO: (Through Translator) You cannot get bored with tempeh. You can eat it every day. It doesn't cause high blood pressure for you. It doesn't increase your cholesterol. It's very good.

KUHN: First, Mr. Hendoko takes us to see where they prepare the soybean.


KUHN: We've come to the communal kitchen where they prepare and boil the beans. It starts out with a bunch of barrels where they wash and then husk the soybeans.


KUHN: The villagers that are working here are stripped to the waist and sweating as they swash the beans around in these huge tubs full of water, next to these massive oil barrels with wood fires smoking underneath them.


KUHN: Mr. Hendoko says the beans are then taken from the kitchen back to the individual families that will make them into cakes of tempeh.

HENDOKO: (Through Translator) First, we mix the clean and split beans with some yeast. And then we pack them into cakes. And we put the cakes on these drying racks to ferment for 18 hours.

KUHN: Hendoko shows us a small brick of cassava starch. This is used to make the mold or fungus that causes the beans to ferment.

Let's check it out. No particular smell to it, but this is what makes the beans stick together. When I eat the tempeh, I don't believe I taste this. You taste the smoky, nutty, mushroomy, meaty taste of the tempeh.


KUHN: Hendoko says the fermentation is what makes tempeh so healthy, and allows you to digest all those high-protein soybeans without ballooning up with gas. Javanese have been eating it for centuries. Mr. Hendoko says he was raised on it.

HENDOKO: (Through Translator) We have to eat tempeh every day because if you don't - as if you don't eat meat that day.

KUHN: I'm hooked on it myself, you know?

HENDOKO: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Hendoko says his daughter makes the tempeh into crispy snacks, which she sells over the Internet. And he has sky-high expectations for his village's products.

HENDOKO: (Through Translator) I think that with government support, in 20 years' time, tempeh will conquer the world.

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

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jakarta.


INSKEEP: It's Morning Kitchen from NPR News.


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