What’s the best way to cook tempeh?

<span>Keep your tempeh in check with the likes of <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/may/24/20-best-vegetarian-recipes-part-2-ofm-shuko-oda-blanche-vaughan-udon-kimchi" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Sri Owen’s Indonesian tempeh rendang;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Sri Owen’s Indonesian tempeh rendang</a>.</span><span>Photograph: Tessa Traeger/The Observer</span>

What’s the best way to cook tempeh?
“People think of tempeh as a modern meat alternative, but it has ancient Javanese beginnings, where it was eaten as a source of protein when people couldn’t afford meat,” says Rahel Stephanie, founder of Spoons, an Indonesian supper club in London. And this nutty, umami-packed fermented soya bean cake is so much more than just a substitute ingredient: “It’s gorgeous,” Stephanie adds. “When people say they don’t like it, it’s because they aren’t cooking it right, the traditional Indonesian way.”

Happily, you can do just that in a multitude of ways, be it deep- or pan-fried, steamed, simmered, grilled, in a stir-fry or battered. “The more surface area that’s fried, the more umami and crunch you’ll get, which is what makes it so moreish,” says Lara Lee, author of A Splash of Soy. That’s why she’s so partial to tempeh rocks, a riff on an idea from Dutch-Indonesian food writer Vanja van der Leeden. Crumble tempeh into small pebbles, then fry in hot oil until browned, says Lee: “You can then add them to salads, rice bowls or congee, or use as a garnish for curries and soups.”

Tempeh also acts like a sponge, so lock in flavour by marinating or soaking it in some form of liquid first. The greatest pairing, Lee says, is chilli, garlic, lemongrass, peanuts, kecap manis and lime leaves, to make tempeh manis, a rich, sweet and spicy stir-fry. Another Lee favourite is sambal goreng tempeh: “Deep- or pan-fry tempeh with a melting pot of aromatics [think shallots, ginger, garlic, lemongrass, lime leaves], then stir in chopped tomatoes, beans, a beautiful glaze of tamarind, palm sugar and kecap manis.”

Stephanie says she would also get frying. “I love deep-frying tempeh,” she says, “because that releases its beautiful, nutty aroma.” You’ll want to keep the pieces small, mind, so cut the tempeh into matchsticks or little cubes before getting them in neutral oil heated to 170C/335F. “Throw that into an aromatic glaze or stir-fry sauce, using coconut palm sugar or kecap manis and some fragrant components – makrut lime leaves, lemongrass, bruised galangal, perhaps.” Alternatively, up your snack game with another Lee go-to, tempeh goreng, for which tempeh is marinated in ground coriander and garlic before being deep-fried and served with hot chilli sambal.

Sophie Wyburd, author of Tucking In (out in June), meanwhile, would get slices of the protein into some kind of “sticky fish sauce-chilli-soy sauce situation, or something with gochujang, so it really settles into the crackles”. Sizzle in hot oil (use an air fryer, if you like) until nice and crisp, then eat with rice, pickled carrots, a bunch of herbs (mint or coriander, say), iceberg lettuce and cucumber: “You really need something fresh to counteract the sauce.”

Otherwise, give your tempeh some stick. Stephanie soaks cubes in a marinade of garlic, shallot, ground coriander and kecap manis, then leaves overnight. The next day, she threads it on to skewers and pops these under the grill, brushing with excess marinade so it cooks and gets all sticky. If the sun’s shining, she’ll serve that as part of a spread with turmeric pickled veg or grated coconut salad, or on colder days simply on its own with some steamed rice: “It’s such a versatile dish.”