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in defense of tempeh [feature]

an indonesian’s attempt to quell the slander.

Ratty tempeh is a mortal sin, an unspeakable around these parts; its reputation precedes it. To partake in its horrors is to renounce the very core of one’s humanity, to shirk one’s honor and pride—and God forbid you claim to enjoy it. Brain-like in texture and appearance, the soy-based product is the bane of every trypophobe’s existence. Despite the Ratty’s many attempts to dress it up and rebrand its soiled image, tempeh dishes inevitably fall flat. An undignified, formless mush, tempeh in every form remains an afterthought in the face of the Ratty’s many culinary triumphs: Fried plantains. Vodka pasta. Pork schnitzel. Barbeque brisket. 

I’d heard the horror stories even before I’d reached Brown, somewhere in that anxiety-riddled summer preceding the start of college. From my little bedroom in Jakarta, Indonesia, I’d watched as my peers took to social media to bombard the upperclassmen with questions. Any advice for first-years? someone would inevitably ask. The replies were generally the same cookie-cutter answers given to every incoming freshman. Take CS15 before Andy leaves. No 9 a.m. class is worth it. Wear your shower shoes. One reply, though, was a constant, crucial word of caution:

Don’t touch the Ratty tempeh! 

Of the many pieces of advice we’d been given, the tempeh comment stuck out the most. Maybe it was the sheer absurdity of it: no other dish at Brown had garnered so much as a mention, let alone a warning. Hell, I’d barely even learned the name of the dining halls by that point. Yet this thought about a familiar Indonesian staple settled in the back of my mind, determined to make its mark.

After a long pre-orientation with nothing but the V-Dub to tide us over, the Ratty opened on the first day of classes. Entering that venerated hall for the first time was momentous. Surrounded by my brand-new clique of pre-orientation friends, I marched in with the confidence of a fresh high school graduate, taking in the sights. The salad bar! The drink machines! Coffee milk! An overwhelming level of choice lay before our very eyes. Amidst our obnoxious chatter and rather misplaced enthusiasm, we grabbed our take-out boxes and shuffled, one by one, toward the food. Most of the dishes that day were, unsurprisingly, nothing to write home about. But there was one that stood out among the rest, one that stopped me in my tracks and left me gawking. 

There, in all of its squishy, bitter glory, was Jamaican jerk tempeh. Brown, unsuspecting, and, most of all, untouched. The advice of my dear upperclassmen advisors had not been lost on me—far from it, in fact. But I’m nothing if not stubborn. If nobody else liked it, then I vowed to be the first.

Defiant as ever, I spooned a heaping pile into my box and strutted out of the Ratty. 

The start of the semester was the perfect weather to be outdoors. The fall hadn’t quite settled in but the harsh summer was mostly over, leaving nothing but perfectly warm sun in its wake. My then-friends, who’d gotten their food ahead of me, were lazing around in a circle on the grassy hill out front. In typical freshman fashion, they’d found even more people to talk to, and so the introductions began yet again, followed by the same few conversations we’d circled through all week: Where are you from? What do you do for fun? What are you majoring—no, wait—concentrating in? Name a fun fact about yourself.

My take-out box had begun to sag with the weight of my food, the cardboard bottom damp with moisture. I’d stuffed it to the brim with all sorts of food: Ratty pizza, marinara pasta, fries, a large salad, beans.

And, of course, the tempeh. 

Eager as always, I shoved a large spoonful into my mouth—

Only to spit it out as soon as it hit my tongue. 

Throughout the rest of the meal, I ate around the mushy brown pile, shoving it to the side with my plastic spoon and praying that it wouldn’t taint my other food. Once a socially acceptable length of time had passed and I was sure nobody was watching me, I dumped the rest into the trash, shame dancing on my tongue.

Of the many freshman-year tears I cried (and there were many), these were among the most memorable. Here I was: the farthest I’d ever been from home, all alone and, in my mind, a complete outsider. In my first few weeks on campus, I’d been called an orangutan, been asked if I had electricity in my country (we do), and now, this.

Horrible, disgusting, vile Ratty tempeh.

I wanted so badly to like it, to become its one and only supporter, to sing of its merits to the heavens. I wanted to prove everyone wrong—to show everyone that it wasn’t just some weird, trendy meat substitute, and that tempeh could, in fact, be good.  

A year into my time at Brown, I’m still an avid member of the Ratty Tempeh Hate Club. One might even call me its most outstanding, outspoken supporter, intent on spreading the goodwill of our organization. I’ll tell just about anyone how nasty it is, and I’m certainly not shy about it. 

But my hate for the dish doesn’t stem from a dislike of tempeh. I love tempeh. And not in the vegan, health-conscious, alternative-protein-seeking way. The ingredient, in all its bitter, savory glory, was a mainstay of my palate; an old, stinky friend. Polarizing, perhaps, but comforting, reliable. Something to fall back on. And having grown up with it, I can tell you with complete certainty: Tempeh is more than this.

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The fermented soybean blocks are a staple of any Indonesian market. Among an assortment of fragrant spices, pungent meats, sharp herbs, and vividly tropical fruits, raw, uncut tempeh is a pristine, silky white—and it is precisely this coloring that helps it stand out. To make tempeh, soybeans are cleaned, boiled, dehulled, and soaked before being inoculated by the mycelium of Rhizopus mold. The beans are then wrapped and shaped into a cake before being left for incubation. The mold then does its work, and, two days later, voila! Tempeh.

I will admit to Googling all that—it’s certainly not knowledge I tend to have on hand. One thing I know by heart, though, is how tempeh is eaten. 

Growing up in Indonesia meant tempeh was always a staple; the neighborhood street vendors were simply never without it. Whether it came from the sun-kissed old woman with crows-feet by her eyes, or the kindly hunched man with a crooked smile, tempeh was always a genuine treat, no matter how it was made. 

Everyone has their own favorite version. Dunk it in batter and deep-fry it, and it’s the perfect after-school snack: a crispy, indulgent delight, the quintessential guilty pleasure. Stir-fry it with sweet soy, shallots, peanuts, and chili peppers and you have a powerful addition to any rice dish, crunchy and light and downright addictive—you were lucky to have it in your lunchbox at school. Steam it and add it to a vegetable stew for a bit of added protein. Thinly slice it and fry it up and you have the perfect chips, rivaling  any Western brand (take that, Lays!).

Tempeh in all of these forms defined my childhood. Its variety is precisely what makes tempeh so wonderful—but flavors and textures are crucial here. Like with any ingredient, you want to work to its strengths; you cook tempeh for what it is, rather than what it isn’t. 

Cook it well, and you’ll hear it sing. Toss it with Jamaican jerk seasoning though, and you might get more of a shriek.

Tempeh is the comfort food of millions and millions of Indonesians, and it’s something I hold up with pride. As you may have gathered, I am staunchly patriotic, an Indonesian through and through. But I don’t do this without reason. Losing one’s culture is a reality familiar to many immigrants. So many distinct identities and histories have been relegated to a mere footnote of the American dream. Egyptian mac and cheese, broth fondue, the Andrews Commons’ “satay chicken” (satay, for the record, is always served on skewers!); all of these represent the subtle appropriation of culture and cuisine. 

In order to join the ranks of fully-fledged Americans, one must prove themselves—and their culture—palatable to the tastes of the West. We don American clothes and speak the American tongue. And America, in turn, regards us as conditional equals, accepting bits and pieces of the identities we call our own. They cherry-pick parts of our dress, cuisine and culture, branding it as the newest fad in town.

This is American Orientalism at its finest. As the exotic ‘other,’ we toe the line between fantasy and fear. Our cultures must be just foreign enough to capture the American interest, but just understated enough that we remain within the realms of American civility.

Tempeh hasn’t escaped this fate. Under the watchful American eye, tempeh has become the foreign and fantastical. It is just magical enough to be incorporated into Western cuisine—but only in an altered, muted state. I can only watch as the West strips it of its history, its identity, and its distinctly Indonesian touch, marketing it instead as a fantastic new meatless invention. A staple in vegan burgers, bacon and turkey, tempeh has joined the ranks of tofu and jackfruit as a tropical superfood, a vegetarian delight: a mystery from the East.

In the face of these bland, flavorless attempts at culinary experimentation, I mourn the desecration of my favorite food. So many people work with tempeh without any regard for what it is, forcing it into the roles of beef or chicken or pork. With such an approach, it’s really no wonder that so many people dislike it. Mediterranean-style tempeh, lemon-herb-crusted tempeh, Jamaican jerk tempeh—all of these dishes push tempeh into shoes it cannot fill. The fusion of cuisines is a natural byproduct of globalization and immigration. The creativity it sparks is unlike any other; so many wonderful dishes have come about as a result of it. But when ingredients and dishes become so far removed from their roots, one has to think about what is being lost.

My aversion to the Ratty tempeh goes beyond flavor and taste. The Ratty tempeh, in every variety I have seen thus far, is entirely disconnected from the tempeh I know. Its origins have all but been erased in favor of romanticizing the idea of a mysterious “Oriental” ingredient. As an Indonesian with so much love for lumpy old tempeh, it saddens me to know how widespread the contempt for it has become. It is a disservice to my favorite dish and the culture I hold so dear.

But while I’d like to give the Ratty chefs a stern talking-to, the spread of tempeh (and its subsequent bastardization) isn’t all bad. The Ratty tempeh, in some strange, convoluted way, represents my rare link to home. A twisted, forlorn version of the home I know, but a remnant of the tropics nonetheless. A reminder that my culture, however far away from home I may be, remains with me. And despite having hurled many an insult towards it, I’m grateful to have the Ratty tempeh around, if only to look longingly upon it, and reminisce upon the flavors of a childhood past.

But even I can’t pretend to enjoy it.

So to any incoming freshmen, I beg you: 

Never touch the Ratty tempeh—but know that it’s not tempeh’s fault!



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