Two groups of people in the world know and appreciate tempe (pronounced "tem-pay"): vegans and Indonesians. The former have adopted what the latter has eaten for centuries. And as well they should. Tempe is a great meat-substitute, a soybean product that, unlike tofu, has the satisfying chew somewhere between a mushroom and a dense piece of meatloaf.
Though you can buy tempe, of course, frozen at most Asian markets, the best tempe is fresh. But to make it yourself is a dicey proposition. Though not as daunting as attempting to recreate Parmigiano Reggiano, tempe-making requires careful planning and the right set of conditions. Few even try. Tempe is, above all, temperamental. The climate has to be right before you can attempt the endeavor. To get the fermentation process going, it likes hot and humid surroundings similar to the balmy tropics from where the delicacy originated.
A good way to judge is to see if the room is comfortable for you. If it is, it is likely too cold and too dry for the spores of the fungus Rhizopus oligosporus that will to turn your soybeans into tempe. If a white fur develops, it would indicate the fungus spores have flourished and did its job.
But even before this, there's the laborious job of prepping the soy. You have to hull each bean, then cook them, acidulate them, add the specific kind of starter, stuff the whole thing in an aerated bag before you can let nature do its work. Since the process is left to the whims and fickle nature of microbes, it is fraught with pitfalls. If you don't know what to look for or what tempe should taste like (tangy but smooth), there's always the danger that your hours of labor will result in something that might make you sick.
Until now, there hasn't been a local producer of real Indonesian tempe so that you don't have to go through the trouble. Since it opened sometime last year, Tempe House is the only one of its kind I know of. Unfortunately for anyone reading this who isn't in the Inland Empire, to get to Tempe House takes at least an hour's drive almost to Palm Springs. But once you do find it in a deserted strip mall in a desolate part of town, you'll discover them selling the delicacy for $1 each--a bargain, if you don't consider the cost in gas. Each satchel is ready for what ever your culinary plans may be. The simplest way to enjoy them is soaked in garlic water and salt, then deep fried.
Of course, you can also just sample some of what the Tempe House has on offer in their turo-turo style set-up of ready-made dishes. They don't all have tempe in them, but there are more than a few that do.
The beef rendang has no tempe, but it is slow-cooked to tenderness, as sweet as it is coated in a reduced and intense spice paste. They have gudeg, the famous Yogjakarta sugary stew made of young jackfruit cooked with hard boiled eggs. You could get both as a $7 two-item combo that includes any rice (plain, turmeric-colored to yellow, or flavored with coconut-milk), piled to ample portions enough for two.
The kitchen prepares other things to order, like the ketoprak, tangles of rice noodle, tofu and rice cake drenched in a peanut sauce that you can request to be as scorching as you like. They have krecek sapi in baggies, a kind of chicharron made from cow hide and tapioca flour. Other items feature things wrapped in a sticky gooey substances, some fried and savory with tempe, other steamed and sweet with jackfruit and banana. And of course, there's tempe itself, covered in a crunchy batter and paired with a Thai chili garnish that is to be eaten in concert with it like a pickle.
Another item only available for order on some days is thick soup with tripe called soto, which on this trip is too heavy on the coconut milk and has bits of tendon too chewy to eat.
For dessert, there's tape (tah-pay), fermented cassava root that's actually mildly alcoholic, tangy and slightly sweet, served either in its unadulterated form or whirred up to bits in an icy slush with rose syrup and condensed milk.
Yes, we tried all these things. Since we didn't have to make the tempe, and we came all this way, we kinda had to.
24984 Third St.,
San Bernardino, CA 92410