The White Stuff

story by bernard brown"Not everyone can get the tempeh so white and…” At Café Pendawa, a corner market on Mole and Morris in South Philly Iwan Santoso searches for the right word. He settles on “fluffy.”  Handmade by the Santoso family at their full-service restaurant Indonesia at Snyder and Bouvier streets, Café Pendawa’s grab-and-go tempeh represents the highest expression of fermented faux meats. The Santosos guard their production method so zealously, they refused to allow Grid a peek at the process, lest we reveal the white and fluffy secret to competitors.

Displayed on low wire shelves next to banana fritters, vegetable fritters and other deep-fried goodies, the tempeh arrives not quite done and finishes maturing on the shelf. Indeed, if you don’t cook, freeze or refrigerate it soon after buying (A mistake I made only once), the tempeh will continue to mature and become overripe—a stage considered a delicacy in the vein of a stinky blue cheese.

The much-vaunted cottony white fluff casing is the mold that binds the soaked and cooked soybeans together and turns them into tempeh. To put it bluntly, the single-celled organisms start digesting the beans for you. Grossed out? Think of beer: barley and water pre-digested by a fungus, and thus elevated to ambrosia.

The Santoso family, who came to the United States in the mid-’90s, opened their restaurant in 2001 (Café Pendawa opened in 2004). At the time they could only get tempeh from a factory in the Midwest and wanted a more reliable, fresh supply. Now, as well as selling their homemade tempeh in the Café, they supply other shops in the area, providing small quantities to stores in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. Next time you get a craving for a protein-rich dish minus the meat, skip the hard shrink-wrapped blocks at the supermarket in favor of some almost-famous Pendawa fluff.

Tempeh Basics

1. Soak dry soybeans overnight before cooking them.

2. Once soaked and cooked through, remove the transparent hulls of the beans by kneading them (the laborious part).

3. Dry hulled beans thoroughly and mix in the mold spores.

4. Incubate the beans until the mold has knit them together into a cake. At 90 degrees that takes about 20 hours, or longer at lower temperatures.

Beware that there are many ways to go astray. As with brewing, the medium you create for your partner microbe can host other, nastier critters. If the beans are too wet, too hot or too cool, if the starter culture is too old, or if your equipment isn’t clean, you can end up with a slimy, stinky mess.

If you’d like to get serious about making your own, pick up The Book of Tempeh by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi.