When Bessie Ongiri and Melissa Lane moved to Oakland, they soon realized the only tempeh they could buy was from across the country.
The couple met in Gainesville, Fla., where, as unlikely as it may sound for a small city, tempeh is part of the local culture to the point where it’s a popular pizza topping and is found way beyond the confines of vegetarian restaurants.
Neither Ongiri or Lane are vegetarians, but coming from Gainesville, they were used to cooking a lot of tempeh at home. Once they moved here, they learned that besides an Indonesian restaurant in San Jose, Budiman, no one was making fresh tempeh locally.
“The national brands can be pretty good if you doctor them up,” said Lane, but “we were used to one that had intrinsic flavor even really simply prepared.” Given that such a product didn’t exist, they set out to make it themselves.
While they were applying for permits and finding kitchen space, another local brand made it to store shelves first: Alive & Healing, out of Windsor, in Sonoma County.
While tempeh has its devotees, there are just as many who brand it “hippie food” or have no idea what it is.
The soybean block comes from Indonesia, and is widely eaten there as a vegetarian protein source. Unlike tofu, which is made from coagulated soymilk, tempeh is made from cooking pre-cracked soybeans, to which vinegar and a starter culture called Rhizopus oligosporus are added. In Indonesia, the beans are then pressed together in banana leaves; in the West, the mixture is put into perforated plastic bags. In both cases, the product is left to ferment for 24 to 36 hours at around 87 degrees. The culture causes a soft membrane to form between the beans, turning them into one solid mass.
Fans love it for its earthy taste, and its texture makes it a more toothsome meat substitute than tofu. Also, the fact that it’s fermented makes it easier to digest, and unlike so many meat substitutes which are so highly processed, tempeh is a whole food. Tempeh bacon strips are popular, as are tempeh Reuben sandwiches. It also can be crumbled, to resemble ground beef, and it crisps nicely when sautéed. It is often cubed, in which case, braising after sautéing, as in a coconut curry, or baking in liquid after steaming is recommended, as tempeh soaks up a sauce best once it’s been cooked.
As Ongiri and Lane found, until recently, the only tempeh available at local grocery stores was made across the country. In order for it to make the trip and have a stable shelf-life, it must be pasteurized, which affects the flavor and consistency considerably.
The local tempehs are not pasteurized, meaning both brands have active live cultures and therefore must be stored in the freezer until ready for use. That’s why they’re not with the other tempehs in the markets.
Stem Kent began Alive & Healing in Windsor, in 2012. While interning at the Farm, a hippie commune in rural Tennessee, he lived on a steady diet of the fermented foods they made. He saw firsthand how much better he felt.
The permaculture designer started Alive & Healing as a way to bring a locally-made meat substitute to the market that wasn’t heavily processed.
“The more we learn about how our meat is raised and farmed, it’s great to know about other alternatives that feel sustainable and that we can feel good about,” he said.
“It’s a live, cultured food,” said Gwen Weiss, a vegan chef who is Kent’s partner in both life and in the business. “It retains its beneficial bacteria and enzymes and the probiotics that help our gut digest and keep us healthy.”
In the two-plus years since he started Alive & Healing, many restaurants in the Santa Rosa and North Bay areas serve it, and he is now talking with vegetarian restaurants in Los Angeles. He is currently moving from a shared kitchen to his own facility in Windsor, where he’ll be able to increase his production.
The increased volume will allow a distributor to handle his account, rather than doing the deliveries as he does now. In addition to Weiss and himself, he also has two other part-time employees, to help with the tempeh-making and deliveries, while he oversees the building of the new facility and maintains the business.
Alive & Healing offers a maple sausage tempeh in addition to plain, and plans to expand into making non-soy tempehs in the future, such as chick pea for the soy-averse.
Meanwhile, in West Oakland, Ongiri and Lane started selling rhizocali at a few local shops last winter and a handful of vegan food trucks began using their product. The name rhizocali is derived from the culture used to make tempeh. Ongiri has a varied background, including a law degree from Hastings, but now works part-time at the California Transplant Donor Network as a surgical technician. Lane, a former massage therapist, works part-time as a nanny.
“We didn’t want to take out any loans, but as a result, it’s probably taken us a bit longer,” said Ongiri. “That has its plusses, in that we worked out all the kinks, and we’ve come up with something that is very consistent.”
The reason why tempeh is so popular in Gainesville is because a master tempeh craftsman lives there, Jose Caraballo, who has been making and selling his tempeh locally since 1985.
Once Ongiri and Lane decided to launch a tempeh business, they returned to Gainesville to learn from the master. Kent, too, consulted Caraballo, when deciding whether he could upscale enough to begin selling to Los Angeles.
Both companies have also sought guidance from William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, authors of “The Book of Tempeh,” who live in Lafayette (Shurtleff is director of the SoyInfo Center, which the couple founded in 1976).
Both local tempehs are available at San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery and Berkeley Bowl West, in addition to other smaller markets. Alive & Healing costs $6.29, while rhizocali comes in at $3.39, both for 8 ounces. Kent says he plans to lower the price once he expands. Both use organic soybeans, but are not certified, though Kent is on his way to being certified both organic and GMO-free.
“In Indonesia, this is a staple food,” said Ongiri. “We don’t want it so that only foodie people can eat it. We’re in West Oakland and we want it to be affordable to everyone.”
While rhizocali has also made non-soy tempehs by special order for local catering companies, they do not plan to bring such products to market – yet.
We tasted the two local brands along with the national brand, Lightlife, which is made in Massachusetts (which retails for $3.39 at Berkeley Bowl.) We lightly sautéed it and tasted it with a sprinkling of salt, as we didn’t want to mask the flavors with sauce. Not surprisingly, we found that the two local brands had a fresher, more fermented taste, while Lightlife tasted bland in comparison. The local brands were also more texturally interesting. Alive & Healing tasted a bit nuttier and smokier, while with rhizocali, the soybean flavor was more pronounced, with just a hint of smokiness.
Kent said that he welcomed another local tempeh company to the market.
“Having another tempeh in the freezer will have people talking about why people should look for it in the freezer section,” he said. “I think we can be mutually supportive in bringing more attention to hand-crafted fermented foods.”