Time for Tempeh: Why a fermented soybean product is the new chefs' favourite

The fermented soybean product of Indonesian origin is finding more takers among chefs, restaurants and startups who are selling it as a protein alternative to health-conscious Indians

Divya J Shekhar
Published: Apr 3, 2021 09:00:00 AM IST
Updated: Apr 3, 2021 11:08:14 AM IST

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Bean Me Up founder Shawn Rodrigues travelled to Indonesia to learn how to make tempeh from scratch, and now has customers from across the world
Image: Edric George for Forbes India

Shawn Rodrigues believes he was possibly the first in India to include tempeh in a restaurant menu. 

His restaurant Bean Me Up in Vagator, Goa, is in its 25th year of business, but it was 12 years ago when he did away with all dairy products and turned vegan. His quest to add more protein alternatives to the menu resulted in Rodrigues travelling to Indonesia to understand how to make its indigenous tempeh. He learnt how to hull, boil, add starter culture, and incubate soybeans at the right temperature, the duration and level of moisture that make the beans bind together in a fluffy patty. Since then, he has been making tempeh from scratch, after importing the starter culture (containing fungi rhizopus oligosporus) required for fermentation from Indonesia.

Today, dishes with tempeh are among the most popular on his menu. Rodrigues says he has used its versatility to experiment with dishes such as Malabar tempeh, where the tempeh is cooked with organic ground spices from the Malabar region of Kerala and is served as a curry, along with brown rice; then there is a barbeque tempeh, which goes into sandwiches and wraps, and tempeh pan-fried with soy sauce, served as a starter alongside a spicy peanutpo dip. Earlier, while it was mostly international tourists who ordered tempeh, Rodrigues has been finding more and more Indians ordering it too. Many of them have become repeat customers. “We have people flying down to Goa just to eat tempeh here, and also find people from other cities wanting to take the tempeh with them when they fly out,” he says. “Urban India today is willing to experiment with food options, and for health conscious Indians who break down nutrients of everything they consume, tempeh turns out to be a good, healthy protein option.”

The plant-based protein market in India is estimated to be worth $565 million by 2023, up from $374 million in 2018, according to a 2018 report by Hypercube Insights, a Bengaluru-based consulting and market research firm. The report adds that the protein market in India accounts for 10 percent of the Asia-Pacific region. According to nutrition experts, the reasons for this include increasing awareness about healthy and organic food, innovation and advancements in vegan diet options, the need for people to find alternatives to meat, and the increasing availability of funding to back health-food ventures. Globally, the plant-based protein market is estimated to be worth $15.6 billion by 2026, recording a compound annual growth rate of about 7.2 percent in terms of value, according to a February 2021 global market forecast report for plant-based protein consumption by Research and Markets, a market research organisation. 

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“A 100 gm tempeh provides 20 gm protein as compared to 10 to 12 gm in cottage cheese and 8 gm in tofu, making it a great plant-based source of proteins for vegans, vegetarians and flexitarians in India,” says Shoba Suri, senior fellow with Observer Research Foundation’s Health Initiative. “Apart from proteins, calories and fat, tempeh has fibre, calcium, iron and potassium, which can be attributed to the use of legumes, grains and nuts that are used for making tempeh.” According to her, regular consumption of tempeh improves cholesterol levels, lowers blood pressure, improves insulin resistance and promotes bone health. “With the rise of non-communicable diseases, tempeh can be an ideal supplement in the diet for better health.” While tempeh is most commonly made of soybean, it can also be made of black beans and chickpeas. Additional ingredients like flax and sesame seeds or quinoa can be added ahead of the fermentation and incubation processes.

Bengaluru-based startup Vegolution launched its first series of products under the brand Hello Tempayy in February. According to founder Siddharth Ramasubramanian, the nutrition startup chose to launch with a product line focusing solely on tempeh because of a few key reasons. “We saw that there is monotony and lack of options for the new class of vegetarian consumers looking for power-packed, and not just low-calorie, nutrition,” he says. It was, he adds, important to find something that suited their palate, and also fun and easy to cook. “So we said that if we want to win the nutrition game, we have to capture the main Indian plate. That’s what led us to tempeh.”

siddharth ramasubramanian  ceo _ founder of vegolution 1Siddharth Ramasubramanian, founder and CEO of Vegolution. The Bengaluru-based nutrition startup chose to launch a product line focusing solely on tempeh

Vegolution, which Ramasubramanian founded with Rajit Malhotra, investor and former managing partner at McKinsey, is funded with a $1 million seed investment from external investors, including KS Narayan, former president of VKL Seasonings, and Ashok Barat, former CEO of engineering organisation Forbes and Company. The founders have additionally invested $500,000. Netherlands-based Schouten, which specialises in plant-based protein foods, has set up a manufacturing unit in Bengaluru to exclusively conduct R&D and produce tempeh for the startup. 

The product line comprises natural tempeh cubes (Rs 130 for 200 gm), and tempeh marinated in pepper szechuan, sriracha and tawa masala (Rs 150 for 200 gm). “Apart from versatility and taste, if we have to find a place in people’s staple diet, it is important to be priced right, so we ensure that the pricing is at par with good quality paneer,” Ramasubramanian says. For people who do not know how to use tempeh in day-to-day cooking, the Hello Tempayy website offers videos on how to make a variety of dishes, ranging from makhni, ghee roast and cutlets to tacos, donburi bowl and Bolognese. 

Vegolution plans to take its tempeh to Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad by year end, and scale to about 25 cities by 2026. Apart from a brick-and-mortar presence, they are listing with ecommerce platforms like Amazon, Flipkart and BigBasket. They are also working with restaurants and food tech startups. 

One such collaboration is with health food tech startup GrowFit, which has raised close to $6.5 million in funding over five years. Founder Jyotsna Pattabiraman says the idea behind the collaboration is to include tempeh in GrowFit’s subscription plans (which provides nutrition-guided lunch and dinner options that are portion and calorie-controlled) and their cloud kitchens that deliver cooked food through Swiggy, Zomato and Dunzo.

Jyotsna says tempeh helps her cater to consumers who have health goals but turn to startups like GrowFit to solve their nutrition problems. “We are trying to give low-carb food options to vegetarians. So far, our only alternatives were tofu and paneer, and the latter does not even absorb flavour that well,” she says, adding that tempeh is also more climate friendly. “As a company, we’d like to be ahead of the curve by evaluating which foods are more climate friendly compared to others. The impact of the dairy industry on climate is well-documented and we feel that it is only a matter of time before customers start asking us about the climate footprint of the food that we are serving.” 

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According to online publication Our World In Data, the greenhouse gas emissions across the supply chain (from land-use and farming to packaging and retail) for beef are the highest, followed by mutton and cheese. The carbon dioxide emissions for plant-based food are 10 to 15 times lower than most animal-based products. “And within plant-based foods, tempeh, being fermented soybean, has even lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to paneer and many other plant-based proteins,” Jyotsna says. According to January 2020 numbers from Our World In Data that tracked greenhouse gas emissions per kilogramme of food products, milk was at 3, while soymilk (used to make tofu), legumes and peas were at 0.9. 

That said, the meat, egg and dairy industries drive global soybean cultivation. According to a 2014 report by WWF called ‘The Growth of Soy: Impacts and Solutions’, three-quarters of the world’s soybean is used primarily as a livestock feed, rather than consumed by humans. This increases the overall environmental footprint of producing soybeans. However, as more people start consuming it directly as a protein alternative instead of indirectly through livestock food chains, cultivating soybean becomes more eco-friendly and land-efficient. 

An August 2020 article in Food Unfolded by Molly Melvin puts this in perspective: If you wanted to have the same amount of proteins as soy from chicken, it would require three times the area of land; for pork it is nine times and beef, 32 times. Swapping meat for soy-based protein would also reduce agricultural deforestation by almost 94 percent. “Reducing our dependence on animal products by increasing our consumption of soy-based alternatives would help us feed more people while using dramatically less land, and protect the planet in the process,” the article says.

Given that an increasing number of people in India are conscious towards both the environment and their health, tempeh can also be a good alternative to meat, says Uma Duggal Arora, who sells tempeh under her brand Culturebake Mumbai. The home chef who started her journey close to four years ago with fermented food used to conduct extensive workshops on sourdough-making for individuals and chefs across the country, when she came across tempeh. 

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“Soy as a legume is difficult to digest, but has been part of Indian cuisine for decades now. Tempeh is easier to digest due to fermentation. Being rich in prebiotics, it has anti-inflammatory properties that support gut health and the digestive system,” says Arora, who says that when refrigerated, tempeh can be stored for about five days, while frozen tempeh will remain fresh up to a year. She makes and sells raw tempeh from scratch. She sells 200 gm of tempeh for Rs 350, and makes between 5 and 10 kg every month, depending on the demand. 

According to Arora, there is a need to popularise tempeh and create more demand for it, which will also enable the handful of startups, restaurants and chefs producing and selling tempeh to experiment more, and scale up their offerings. Tusini and Charanraj Gujaran, founders of the venture Tempe Di Mumbai, agree. They believe there is a loyal and growing customer base for tempeh. “While demand from restaurants reduced in the wake of the pandemic, our sales have not reduced drastically because of our individual customers. Even when there was no transportation and trains, so many of them from South Mumbai came to Vasai to collect the tempeh,” says Tusini, an Indonesian settled in Mumbai since 2016, when she launched the venture. Initially catering to just members of the Indonesian consulate in Mumbai, the duo started delivering to people across the country. 

“At the start, all our clients were Indonesian, Malaysian or Singaporeans. Now, it is 50:50 [Indians and Southeast Asian], given the increasing number of Indians becoming aware of tempeh,” adds Charanraj, who had a business dealing with industrial pipes before he decided to concentrate full-time on building Tempe Di Mumbai in 2018. Their outreach has been mostly through word-of-mouth or receiving endorsements from celebrities on social media. “For example, Kuntal Joisher, the first vegan to climb Mount Everest, used to eat tempeh when he was in the US. In India, he tried our tempeh for the first time and posted on social media as he found it to be authentic,” says Charanraj, adding that the venture has more than 400 clients from Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bengaluru and Gujarat. 

The duo has recently received a food license that will allow them to take their small business to retail and ecommerce outlets. Each 100 gm of their organic tempeh contains 21.77 gm of protein, says Tusini, claiming that it is among the highest for organic tempeh currently available in India. They make close to 100 kg of tempeh every month, and sell in two package sizes of 250 gm and 500 gm. 

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Rodrigues of Bean Me Up says one challenge in scaling up availability of tempeh is availability of the starter culture. “I don’t know if there is an Indian manufacturer who makes starter culture for tempeh yet. We still buy it from Indonesia. The costs will be much more effective, and the quantity of supply can be more consistent if we have startups or labs making starter culture in India,” he says. Arora thinks it is time the health sector adopts tempeh too. “It will certainly help a lot to make tempeh mainstream if nutritionists start including it as part of their diet recommendations,” she says. 

Suri, who is also a member of the Right to Protein initiative that seeks to increase awareness about protein consumption in India, believes that while there is a possibility to drive acceptance for tempeh, it boils down to more people developing a taste for it. “Like tempeh is to Indonesia, cottage cheese is to India. So making changes in traditional diets will take some time,” she says. “But with tofu gaining popularity as a vegetarian and vegan source of protein, tempeh may be the next big thing in the market.”

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