Whenever I see an Indonesian recipe for tempeh, I give it a try. That’s because even though I’ve been a fan of the fermented soybean cake for years, I’m still trying to unlock all its secrets, and Indonesia is where it was born.
As chef Lara Lee writes in her beautiful recent cookbook, “Coconut & Sambal,” tempeh hails from 18th-century Java, “and today it is described as Indonesia’s gift to the world. It’s used for meat-free burger patties in international street-food markets, sold globally as a substitute for bacon, and is often the star of vegan Buddha bowls served with chia seeds and other superfoods that were made famous in Bali and now have a home at brunch spots all over the world.”
I’ve marinated it, fried and glazed it, baked it in a creamy mushroom sauce and even grated it for a vegan twist on Bolognese. But Lee’s take, a traditional dish she learned in central Java, was the first time I’ve paired it with one of Indonesia’s other great culinary gifts: kecap manis, a dark soy sauce that gives it a touch of sticky sweetness.
Lee has ties to London, where she lives; Australia, where she grew up; and Indonesia, the land of her father. I’ve never been to the latter two places, but when I make this dish — frying tempeh cubes; sauteing snow peas with lemongrass, lime leaves and ginger; tossing it all with the rich, black kecap manis — I can taste Lee’s pride in her heritage. And after reading her book, in which she writes that “eating vegetarian food in Indonesia is an enlightenment,” I’m determined to visit one day and taste it all for myself.
Sweet soy tempeh
This traditional dish from central Java, Indonesia, gets its stickiness from one of the country’s greatest culinary exports: kecap manis, sweetened soy sauce. It also happens to be an excellent way to cook tempeh, one of its other famous foods. Serve with red or brown rice, or another favorite grain.
Storage Notes: The finished tempeh can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
Where to Buy: Kecap manis can be found in Asian and large international supermarkets. If you don’t see a bottle with that name, look for something labeled “sweet soy sauce” or “dark sweet soy sauce” from Indonesia.
¼ cup coconut oil or sunflower oil, plus more as needed
1 pound tempeh, cut into 1-inch cubes
½ teaspoon fine sea salt, divided, plus more to taste
2 tablespoons light or dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons water
3 large shallots (6 ounces), thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 long red chiles, such as Asian finger peppers, thinly sliced (deseeded if you prefer less heat)
1 lemongrass stalk, smashed and tied in a knot
4 makrut lime leaves (may substitute 2 bay leaves)
6 thin slices unpeeled fresh ginger
8 ounces snow peas, trimmed
¾ cup (4 ounces) unsalted roasted peanuts
3 tablespoons kecap manis (may substitute 1 tablespoon soy sauce plus 2 tablespoons brown sugar)
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add half the tempeh and fry until golden, turning as needed to get most sides browned, 3 to 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a plate lined with paper towels or a clean dish towel, and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Repeat with the remaining tempeh and salt, adding a little more oil, if needed.
In a small bowl, stir together the brown sugar and water.
Add the shallots, garlic, chiles, lemongrass, lime leaves and ginger slices to the now-empty skillet and cook, stirring, until the shallots soften, about 2 minutes. Add the snow peas and cook, stirring, until they are barely crisp-tender, about 1 minute. Add the fried tempeh and peanuts, then add the kecap manis and sugar-water mixture, stirring until the sauce is bubbling and clinging to the other ingredients, about 1 minute. Taste, and season with more salt, if needed.
Discard the lemongrass stalk, lime leaves and ginger slices, and serve hot.