Many of us know tofu through the many Asian foods that have become favourites in Australia, but the word Tempeh leaves many wondering why we are talking about a suburb as food.

Even though Tofu and Tempeh are both soy bean products - they are very different in taste and use. While tofu can sometimes be "hidden" in dishes to sneak in some protein or low calorie filling factor, tempeh is a dense and hearty soya product that is an acquired taste, often used as a meat substitute. 

So what is Tempeh?
Tempeh is a soybean cake with a very different texture and nutritional profile to tofu. It originates in Indonesia, where the ease of growing soy beans, and the climate perfect for fermenting. It is a cheap and abundant staple for the large portion of the population that can't afford meat. It has now begun to spread, and is being taken up as a great meat alternative in western countries.

Cooked, whole soybeans are fermented into a firm, dense, chewy cake that tastes nuttier and more earthy.  It possesses more protein, dietary fiber, and vitamins compared to tofu, as well as a firmer texture and stronger flavor. It has less fat and is less processed, so even while generally being higher in calories, tempeh is considered healthier than tofu.

It is sometimes quite difficult for the human digestive system to cope with whole soy beans, but the fermentation process involved in converting the raw beans into tempeh allows the enzymes in the stomach to maximise the nutritional potential of soy. Soy is a really valuable source of nutrition. Soy beans contain fibre, iron, zinc and nearly 40% protein - an really high proportion. Soy protein contains all of the essential amino acids, and has a digestibility of about 95%, making it a high quality source. The fat in soya is mostly unsaturated, which is the type that reduces blood cholesterol.

Tempeh is usually prepared by slicing the block, and then using sauces and mariandes to add flavour. Some Tempeh are made with other grains, legumes, or herbs and spices to add texture and flavour.

Tofu - but which one?
Tofu has a bland yet somewhat nutty flavor that gives it the ability to take on the flavor of the food with which it’s cooked.

Tofu is categorized by texture, or consistency. The texture is determined by the water content in the tofu. The more water, the softer or ‘silkier’ the tofu; with less water, the tofu is firmer. The varieties of tofu are called extra firm, firm, regular/soft, and silken. It usually comes in a block, covered in water (this is also the best way to store tofu in the fridge). You can slice, dice, or mash it up for soups, stir-fry dishes, casseroles, sandwiches, salads, salad dressings, and sauces. It’s easy to digest, low in calories, calcium, and sodium, and high in protein.

A break-down of the most common Tofu varieties

Silken: Also known as Japanese-style tofu; this one is silky, creamy and has the highest water content. If you try to hold it, it will fall to pieces (don't try picking this one up with chopsticks!). Silken tofu can be used as a thick cream, fresh cream cheese or ricotta in cheesecakes, smoothies, dips or even ravioli fillings. You usually prepare dishes with silken tofu when it is wet.

Regular/Soft: This type of tofu is used primarily in Asian dishes. It is a little more compact than silken but still soft. Regular tofu easily soaks up the flavours of sauces and broths and so is often used in noodle soups and stews. You can also make delicious spreads using regular tofu, or ‘scrambled’ tofu, a vegetarian take on scrambled eggs. Don’t pan-fry or deep-fry this tofu as it is likely to crumble.

Firm: One of the most common and familiar types. Firm tofu is quite compact and is often packaged soaked in liquid – the amount depends on the type of packaging. Firm tofu is like feta: it doesn’t crumble when you pick it up and it is easy to chop. In the kitchen, firm tofu is the most versatile of the tofu types. It can be pan-fried, stir-fried, deep-fried, put in a stew, used as a filling or to make spreads. Be sure to fully dry firm tofu before cooking, to ensure it can absorb the marinade and will splatter less in the pan.

Smoked tofu: This tofu is extra-firm and has a smoky flavour. Smoking is generally an artisanal process. Originally, tofu was smoked above tealeaves, but today it is mostly done over beech wood, which gives it a great aroma. You can pan-fry or stir-fry smoked tofu, but it is best eaten raw, such as in a winter stew or a summer salad.

While tempeh has a heartier taste that makes it great as a meat-replacement, tofu is essentially flavorless which means it can be used in a wide range of foods to absorb and carry flavour. Tempeh is definitely worth a try if you have tried tofu and are looking to move to the next level!

This week in our meal packages - we have some great recipes using tofu and tempeh for you to try!