Europeans have cheese, San Franciscans have sourdough bread -- Indonesians have tempeh, an everyday food made from fermenting soybeans in a plastic bag (or banana leaves) with yeast in a hot, humid room.
Typically you buy tempeh ready-made, even in Indonesia. And if you live there, buying it is like hunting for a loaf of bread; it is widely available, cheap, and most importantly, freshly produced. And since it has a savory taste and dense texture, it easily replaces meat which is typically very expensive.
Here in the states however, you'd be hard pressed to find fresh tempeh anywhere. It's only available in a frozen state at Asian markets like 99 Ranch or DiHo. These frozen blocks are a decent substitute, but only until you've had a freshly made batch of tempeh.
Making it at home is a painstaking process, which from what I can tell (I've only observed), involves carefully peeling the skin of each individual soybean after a good overnight soak in a water bath. Then there's the fermenting process, which needs to happen in a hot, humid environment. Recently, my family has been blessed with hot weather, rendering our garage a perfect breeding ground for the microbes that go to work in making our tempeh. But previous attempts in the dead of winter yielded nothing but rotten-smelling soybeans after hours of tedious labor.
Whether you make your own tempeh or buy it frozen, you have a myriad of ways to prepare it. It can be used in stir fries, stews, or grilled like a hamburger patty. My favorite way is deep frying after marinating in mashed garlic and salt.
The flavor is probably unlike anything the western palate has tasted before. It is chunky, with an alarming soft pebbly texture. The flavor is meaty with a little bit of tartness -- somewhere between a ripe mushroom and tofu. When deep fried, the outer skin gets crunchy and harbors the full intensity of the seasonings you put into it.
If you are intrepid enough to try to make tempeh on your own at home, just type "tempeh" on Google and the first site it lists (http://www.tempeh.info/) will tell you anything and everything about the process. Otherwise find a package, post-haste, at your local Asian grocer!
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