Last night well respected permaculturist educator Adam Grubb gave me some homemade tempeh. Tempeh is fermented soybeans prepared using a fungus. You get your hands on a tempeh starter (Rhizopus oligosporus) and combine it with soybeans and put it somewhere warm. In about 24 hours you have tempeh. Lots of people prefer tempeh to tofu because it proffers the benefits of fermented food such as bioavailability of nutrients and a high whack of good gut bacteria, not to mention an excellent mushroomy/nutty flavour. I spoke to Adam this morning before either of us had had a chance to eat breakfast.
SC: Good Morning Sunshine. So you recently made some tempeh. Where did you source the fungus from?
AG: On the internet. Some guy in Malaysia. You can get it at a reasonable price through an Australian based internet place now. It took a while to get through customs. I guess it could be confused for anthrax.
SC: It is encouraging that a white fungus from Malaysia made its way through. I saw a pensioner on a bus get shot for trying to take a jar of honey into Western Australia once.
AG: 100 grams of the stuff makes I think about 50kg of tempeh. Anyway I got 500 grams. So enough to make my body weight of tempeh several times over.
SC: You should make a tempeh effigy and then stuff it with chipotle and roast it on Guy Fawkes…
AG: I’m more inclined to worship the spore than sacrifice.
SC: Can you inoculate a second batch with left over bits of the first?
AG: You can sort of inoculate a second batch with the second, but it works better with dry spore rather than chunks of last week’s tempeh. You can in theory culture your own spore, but I haven’t had much luck doing that.
SC: The tempeh that you gave me yesterday looks very different to the one you gave me back in 2006. Yesterday’s tempeh looks like it came from Minh Phat’s. 2006’s tempeh was thrown out by a concerned housemate who thought it was a biohazard because it was dark brown and furry!
AG: In Indonesia I think all you need to do is wrap some cooked soybeans in a banana leaf; its 30 degrees outside, the spores are there naturally on the leaf, and you just make tempeh. Here it’s not so easy.
It should be furry, that’s the fungal hyphae. If you let it mature for long enough the pure white fungus will produce spores and you’ll get dark patches. That’s normal.
The biggest problem I’ve had is trying to make too much at once. You need to incubate tempeh at around 30 degrees C.
SC: How do you keep a constant temperature?
AG: I’ve got an eski with a low watt light globe in it. But the metabolism of the tempeh fungi produces it’s own heat. So it can push the temperature over 40 in a small space and your tempeh is ruined. You make something that smells like natto instead.
That only happens if you make too much at once.
SC: How hard is it to make your own tempeh? On a scale of mead to sauerkraut where does tempeh rate on the fermentation scale of difficulty?
AG: It’s middle tier. In my eski I’ve got a thermostat attached to the light. It would be a hassle keeping the temperature right without it. Also you need to crack the soy or whatever else you are fermenting. I’ve got a hand mill that does it. So it takes a bit of time and you need a couple of things that most people don’t have around the kitchen.
But the pay off is that you can make all kinds of tempeh, that taste way better than the shop bought stuff. My favourite is chickpea and nori tempeh. You also get a science experiment you can eat.
It takes 24-36 hours for the tempeh fungus to grow. For the first 12 hours nothing visible happens. Then you can start to see it spread. It’s exciting to wake up and find out what beastie has grown in your box.
SC: Could you inoculate the soybeans in such a way that the Virgin Mary or E.T. could appear like some kind of prophetic vision? You could make tempeh with Holmgren on it!
AG: I think it would be better to leave such possibilities to providence.
SC: Thankyou for answering my questions so early on a Sunday. What other fermented things do you have on the go? And what is it with you eco types and ferments? What is the attraction to fermenting your own food?
AG: That’s all right now, but I think I’ll ferment up some grated beetroot.
It is the tastiest thing ever, sour beets. Ferments are just the best foods: tea, coffee, chocolate, cheese, yogurt, beer, wine.
SC: Could you make me some Guinness flavoured tempeh in time for March 17?
AG: I can see how that might be possible. I suppose that would be a world first.
There are microbes everywhere and we like to pretend they’re not there. By by cell count these bodies we carry around are 10 times more bacteria than human cells. By DNA levels we are 100 times more bacteria than human. We like to pretend they’re not there, that we control our environment. Did you know there is a positive correlation between fear of living contaminants and socially conservative views?
SC: I think I saw Julie Bishop scolling a bottle of Dettol in traffic once yes…
AG: That would be right. But you can’t beat them, because if we wiped them out of our immediate environment, we would die with them.
SC: I also think there is a positive correlation between smelling like stale sweat and being an annoying anarcho syndicalist conspiracy theorist! I wont put that in the interview I’m just ranting…Now you will think I am a neo con.
AG: Anyway getting at one with the fungi and bacteria is good for your health and maybe just maybe you will learn to embrace all your fellow human beings too. And the world shall live together as one.
SC: As if!
AG: Did you try the tempeh yet?
SC: I’m about to eat it for breakfast. I’m just waiting for my housemate to get out of the kitchen. I fear her bacteria and worldview.
AG: When the revolution comes you OCD types will be the first to go.