April 4, 2022
TOKYO – Tempeh has won recognition and begun a unique evolution in Japan, assisted by the country’s rising health consciousness and expanding supply channels.
Tamaki Abe is one of a growing number of Japanese who recently fell in love with tempeh, the fermented soy-based Indonesian dish. It did not register much when she first savored it for the first time years ago, but she came to like it in the past several months as she started to be aware how it matches with spices that are popular with Japanese culinary fans, especially curry.
“It tastes so delicious in teriyaki sauce”, the Kyoto-based vegetarian in her forties told The Jakarta Post. She gained a greater appetite for tempeh as she became aware of the rich nutrition including Vitamin B12.
Like other imported dishes, tempeh is evolving in its own unique way in Japan, or more precisely, in Nagano, northwest of Tokyo.
Last December, Akiyoshi Otomo, 45, and his wife opened Tempeh Kitchen, a tempeh bento shop. Their lineup includes mapo tofu, teriyaki and lo bah png – main bento dishes uniquely mixed with tempeh.
“I wanted to introduce tempeh to people’s palates”, Otomo said.
Like Abe, his fondness for tempeh has grown over time. He previously worked as a logistics consultant in Tokyo, but at the age of 35, he suffered a stroke and then became more health-conscious. That was when he encountered homemade garlic-soy karaage-like tempeh cooked by one of his mountain-climbing friends.
Liking it plenty, Otomo tried some commercially available tempeh but it never satisfied him. He then developed a tempeh-manufacturing machine and began selling it, before finally coming up with the business idea to start his own outlet.
The bar for tempeh is relatively low for Japanese people partially because their traditional food natto is also fragmented soy.
For instance, Tokiwa, a natto maker in suburban Tokyo has been supplying tempeh since 2004. According to its owner Makoto Yusaku, the sales for tempeh now make up roughly 10 percent of total sales. “The way to make tempeh is similar to natto”, Yusaku said, adding that one of the few differences is the fragmentation temperature.
The company’s raw tempeh with skin, suitable for salads, sells for 300 yen (US$2.52) in a high-end supermarket in Tokyo and other natural food groceries.
“In the past, tempeh required explanation. I think now more and more people know about it,” Yusaku said. However, he also observes that its popularity is not high because it is not eaten right away but requires some processing. Therefore, he thinks collaboration with other existing dishes is necessary down the road.
He added that tempeh in Indonesia is infused with bacteria, which gives it an umami flavor while unfortunately there is no room for such bacteria as the conditions are strict when securing formal sales channels in Japan.
For good health
Tempeh was first sold in Japan in the 1980s, but it did not sell well and many companies withdrew it from production. Tempeh is now making a comeback, largely thanks to growing health consciousness.
Still, Yusaku is committed to manufacturing tempeh. “There are only a limited number of fermented foods on our planet that do not use salt. Natto and tempeh are among them, basically the only two. It is very important to keep making these.”
In a 2014 article for Onkochishin — a magazine run by a malt company with the themes of food, health and the environment — Miho Ota, medical doctor and chairman of the Japan Tempeh Research Association, clarified the intestinal regulating effects of tempeh in the human study. Tempeh contains more dietary fiber than natto and may be useful in preventing lifestyle-related diseases.
Meanwhile, a popular budget supermarket chain in Japan is trying to expand sales of tempeh.
Gyomu Super started selling frozen tempeh directly imported from Indonesia in Tokyo and neighboring Kanagawa prefecture, starting in July 2021. Because of the high demand, there were periods of temporary shortages of the products.
Speaking about its intentions, the employee in charge who did not want to be identified, said that at the price range, not just Indonesians living in Japan but also those who already know about tempeh, including vegans and vegetarians, would buy it.
“We also thought that since it is made from soybeans, an ingredient that is familiar to Japanese people, as long as people recognize how to eat it, it would be accepted by the general public, even those who do not know about tempeh”.
The person further explained the grocery chain planned to expand its sales capacity in cooperation with the Indonesian consulate in Osaka while pledging to actively introduce recipes on its website and suggesting ways to use tempeh to gain recognition from a wider range of consumers.
Also, the number of Indonesian restaurants in Japan has been soaring along with the growing number of Indonesians living in Japan. According to research, 26 out of 64 Indonesian restaurants across the country serve tempeh.
These prospects resonate well with the future hopes of vegetarian Abe. “I hope to see more and more stores in Japan where you can buy and eat tempeh. And someday, I would like to enjoy my fluffy homemade tempeh”.