As a meat lover, I’ll admit I was nervous to try the so-called sister food of tofu—tempeh. I had seen the product listed on a variety of vegetarian menus, but didn’t exactly know what it was. So when I met with Ryan Billig, founder of Minneapolis-based Tempeh Tantrum, I was scared to come off as a newbie.
Right off the bat, I explained to Billig my lack of experience with tempeh, a quality he welcomed with open arms. He was excited to show me around his small tempeh factory located inside City Food Studio, a shared kitchen for start-up food brands in South Minneapolis. First, he explained to me that tempeh is a fermented soybean cake originating from Indonesia. While there are many variations, the kind that he makes is inspired by the tempeh made in the Malang region of Java, Indonesia.
Billig is a tempeh connoisseur who has been making the product in Minnesota for the past eight years. His inspiration for Tempeh Tantrum stemmed from his experience working as a cook at the Hard Times Café, where the cooks generally make all of their products from scratch. But when it came to making their own tempeh, everyone was pretty clueless about the process. Billig was further motivated by his travels to Indonesia. There, he ate tempeh that tasted nothing like the packaged kind he had eaten in the U.S. Additionally, Billig found that it was consumed with every meal, rather than just an option for vegetarians.
Upon his return to Minnesota, Billig sought to create Indonesian-caliber tempeh that could be appreciated by carnivores and vegetarians alike. He began experimenting with different methods and recipes, and finally settled on the one he uses now. The process starts by soaking dry soybeans in water, splitting them with a mill and steaming them. Billig then adds the Rhizopus mold (the natural culture) and leaves the trays of beans in a warmer for 20 to 45 hours to ferment, depending on the temperature. Finally, he slices the tempeh and packages the product in Eco-pack freezer paper, one of the more environmentally friendly packaging options.
After learning all about tempeh’s production, I was excited to taste Billig’s creations. He cooked me not one, not two or three, but four different preparations of fresh tempeh. I took my first bite into his favorite tempeh preparation—a traditional baked, spicy, cake called Tempe Penyet—and my taste buds immediately thanked me. It was delicious.
While I had no previous tempeh experience under my belt to compare, a number of reviews have noted that Tempeh Tantrum’s lightness and airiness is incomparable to other American brands. The other preparations included baked tempeh with garlic, salt, cumin and olive oil, simple tempeh seasoned with kimchi from a fellow City Food Studio startup You Betcha! Kimchi, and my personal favorite: simmered tempeh covered in a fresh, zingy cilantro lime sauce. Needless to say, I loved them all and couldn’t wait to take some home for my family.
To get a taste of Billig’s Tempeh Tantrum, visit any of the local co-ops listed on his website including Lakewinds in Richfield, The Wedge and a number of restaurants around town including Chef Shack Ranch, Seward Café and Hard Times Café.
While not all of the mouth-watering recipes that Billig made for me are posted on his website, he does share a few of his beloved recipes including tempeh Italian sausage and tempeh meatballs.
And a word to my fellow tempeh newbies—go for it! You won’t regret it.