Food and drink 

Tempeh in a teapot: A bit of mould, a mound of soybeans and a lack of spoonbills

“That’s it! I’m not eating carbohydrates!”

So shouted my husband early one Saturday morning shortly before Christmas as he was drinking his usual vat of coffee and I, already bewildered due to my eternal inability to function properly before, say, 11 a.m., felt even more perplexed since neither of us had been saying a thing and I don’t think there was a dreaded carbohydrate in sight.

Then I realized he was listening to an interview on the radio with science writer Gary Taubes discussing his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, which “challenges the conventional wisdom on diet, weight control and disease.” According to Mr. Taubes, an award-winning correspondent for Science magazine, it ain’t the saturated fats or the sedentary lifestyle that ails us, it’s the carbs, with their impact on insulin secretion, and the sugars, especially sucrose and that high-octane/high-fructose corn syrup, that are our weighty undoing.

So no carbs it was for Peter, or at least very few, quite the sacrifice for a bread and cookie lover amidst a holiday freezer full of good bread and Christmas baking, and other assorted jolly-holiday carbs.

Despite earlier misgivings, I have to admit some half-year later, that I hand it to him. He’s down a pant size or two and has recently added small amounts of decent whole grain complex-type carbs back into his diet, which now reminds me of that of my diabetic god-daughter’s.

I’m even off much of my usual carbo-hydration, cutting that mound of rice to a modest spoonful or three and grabbing a handful of raw almonds instead of my usual chips.

Given his track record, I’m now paying attention to Peter’s latest fancy, tempeh — no big surprise given he’s usually ferreting out something or other off the beaten path.

At first I had no idea what he was talking about, until I started poking around and learned that it’s a fermented soy product from Indonesia. So that’s what that was in a veggie stir fry-type dish I had in Surabaya on the island of Java and couldn’t figure out. And here I thought it was just the residuals from malaria that had cooked my brain.

Tempeh, according to Harold Gee in On Food and Cooking , was invented in Indonesia, and is totally suited to that hot, humid tropical climate. It’s made by cooking whole soybeans (without the hulls), forming them into thin layers and then fermenting them with a mould, Rhizopus oligosporus or R. oryzae, for 24 hours at a warm, tropical temperature (30-33 Celsius). The mould grows and makes long thread-like hyphae (a network of fine white filaments that make up the vegetative part of a fungus), which penetrate the beans and bind them together. As the mould grows, it also digests “a significant part” of the oil and protein in the soybeans and transforms them into tasty bits that some people much prefer to the taste of tofu.

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