After 10 minutes with tempeh maker Beth May, I'm beginning to wish I'd paid more attention in biology class. We're walking through Hillsborough's shiny new Piedmont Food and Agricultural Processing Center, a food business incubator space filled with gleaming kettle cookers, convection ovens and walk-in freezers. May, a petite brunette in jeans and cat-eye glasses, is using words like "mycelium" and "solid substrate" and "oligosaccharides" and "rhizopus oryzae."
I'm doing my best to follow along.
Despite tempeh's (entirely unfair) reputation as a crunchy hippie food, the kind of stuff eaten by people who are afraid of microwaves and believe in auras, it turns out that making the fermented soybean product on a large scale is a rigorous, highly scientific process. The kind of thing that might come naturally to, say, a bio-and-agriculture engineer.
Which, as it turns out, is exactly what May—the 38-year-old owner of Tempeh Girl, the Triangle's only artisan tempeh company—used to be. After years of working in a lab growing fungus for research purposes—including compost studies and its use as a biological agent against mosquitoes—she took time off to raise her two children, now 5 and 8. But since her kids started school, she's been looking for a way to use her skills and re-enter the workforce.
A few years ago, after coming across a magazine story about tempeh, which originally comes from Indonesia and was popularized as a meat substitute in the U.S. in the 1960s, May had her eureka moment. "This is just growing fungus on a solid substrate!" she remembers thinking.
For the nonmycologists ("fungi scientists"), that means growing fungus on a solid, non-dissolvable material—in this case soybeans.
So May started experimenting at her Carrboro home with fungus she bought online. Earlier this year, Sam Suchoff, the owner of The Pig barbecue restaurant in Chapel Hill, gave her reign of his kitchen to produce tempeh on a commercial scale, for use in his restaurant and elsewhere. When the Piedmont Food and Agricultural Processing Center opened this fall to provide space for small-scale food artisans, May was one of its first tenants.
Making tempeh is a multistep, labor-intensive process that begins with using a food mill to break up the whole soybeans, which May orders in 50-pound sacks from an organic soybean farm in Nebraska. She then pre-ferments the beans with a vegan probiotic for 24 hours and cooks them in a steam kettle. She dries and mixes them with the tempeh culture and incubates it in a warm food storage locker for another 40 hours.
During the incubation period, the tempeh culture—a powdered spore of the fungus rhizopus oryzae—"knits" the beans together into a solid block. May holds up a pre-incubated block of tempeh, which looks like a baggie of loose beans. By contrast, a post-incubation brick of tempeh is solid, the spaces between the beans filled in with a slightly fuzzy-looking white substance. This is the mycelium, the thread-like fungus. It looks like a block of almond-studded nougat.
May is one of very few tempeh producers who pre-ferment their tempeh, which she says helps make it more digestible (less, uh, "bean effect"). She also thinks fresh tempeh tastes sweeter than the commercially produced variety, which she says has a slightly bitter aftertaste.
Sam Suchoff of The Pig is a former vegan who had never eaten fresh tempeh until he met May. He says watching her make tempeh is "weird and interesting" and that the end product is extraordinary. For his restaurant, he slices the tempeh thin and panfries it, then tosses it in spice rub and serves it with barbecue sauce on platters and in sandwiches. It's a hit.
As for cooking tempeh at home, May has a few suggestions that have overcome her own family's occasional skepticism (her mother made her promise to "never" serve her tempeh when she visits). She deep-fries it and serves it with ranch dressing, a kid favorite. She coats it in crushed pecans to make "tempeh nuggets." She marinates it in ginger-soy-garlic marinade. She uses liquid smoke to make tempeh "bacon" or sausage patties. She mixes it with pesto and roasts it in the oven. She slices it, roasts it and serves it with pineapple-mango salsa.
"It likes strong flavors," she says. "And it's even better the next day."
May hopes to ramp up production a bit and perhaps earn a spot at some local farmers markets. For her, tempeh-making is the perfect way to mix her love of good eating with her love of what she calls "the nerdy." As she says: "It's fun and science-y, and it still makes food in the end."