Awang Kitchen is a bright spot on Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst. Literally: It’s lit so strongly, you can spot it from afar while you drive hungrily down the street looking around for parking. The small space has a sushi bar to your right when you walk in, but everyone comes for the Indonesian food. Elmhurst has long been known as the neighborhood in the city to go to for beef rendang and mie goreng, as well as tempeh, and Awang, which opened in 2017, has become the neighborhood’s shining star.
What most Americans know as a meat substitute that usually sits next to the tofu dogs in the vegan section of the supermarket is actually a staple of Indonesian cuisine. There it was first made by wrapping soybeans in hibiscus leaves; the mold Rhizopus oligosporus adhered to those leaves naturally, and the hot and humid climate was a perfect incubator. Tempeh became both a staple of the diet and a protein substitute for anyone who couldn’t afford meat. In its Americanized life, it’s turned into hamburgers and bacon, an adaptation seems strange to Pat Tanumihardja, the Jakarta-born author of Farm to Table Asian Secrets—Vegan and Vegetarian Full-Flavored Recipes for Every Season.
“When I first came to the U.S. [from Jakarta] for college in 1992, I only saw tempe [its Indonesian spelling] on menus at vegetarian or hippie restaurants and also in health food stores. It wasn’t even sold at the Asian markets,” she tells me over email. “Over the years, I noticed tempe at mainstream supermarkets … vegetarians and vegans were using it as a meat substitute and turning it into odd foods like burgers, tacos, salads, and stews. I was so used to seeing it cooked Indonesian-style.”
At Awang Kitchen, that’s what you get. Chef Siliwanga serves two tempeh appetizers: a lightly fried pillow called tempeh mendoan, which is served with a palm-sugar-sweetened soy dipping sauce dotted with chopped scallion, and a deep-fried version, served sans sauce. The former, he says, is very traditional to his home of Java, while the latter was was put on the menu for those who might find softer tempeh off-putting. While they look similar enough on first glance, the mendoan brings the intense mushroomy flavor of the protein to the fore, complemented by the nice salty-sweet balance of the sauce.
“On one hand, I’m glad Indonesian food is getting its fair share of recognition — or at least one particular food is,” Tanumihardja says. “I’m really hoping that Indonesian cuisine will become more popular in the U.S. because it’s such a rich, diverse cuisine. On the other, it’s pointless if Indonesian food like tempe becomes popular but is divorced from its cultural and historical origins. People who eat it are none the wiser, and assume it’s just a product or invention borne out of the vegan food movement.”
The way veganism claims plant-based meat substitutes from various Asian cuisines as its own — turning tofu into nuggets, seitan into sausage, jackfruit into pulled pork — takes a different form at chef Chris Scott’s Butterfunk Kitchen in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. There, at the recent Top Chef finalist’s soul-food restaurant, he serves a chicken-fried version with a stew of okra and other vegetables. The result is a satisfyingly crispy dish that, again, doesn’t hide the intensity of tempeh’s own funk. And somehow it fits right in among the crispy deviled eggs, fried catfish, and braised beef brisket. You could say it’s a Southern take on what they serve up in Elmhurst — a clever way to give the vegans something to munch on at a very meaty restaurant — but the reasons behind its inclusion on the menu go much deeper, because Scott finds it surprising that plant-based eaters even step foot inside his restaurant.
“It’s like a carnivore heading out to a vegetarian restaurant for steak,” he says. “But that seems to be the trend these days: Everyone is looking for healthier options, even if it means literally changing the historic methods and ingredients of a cuisine. With that being said, we put our tempeh on the soul food menu.”
Scott was introduced to the protein while cooking at a vegan and macrobiotic restaurant. “I immediately fell in love with it. Its flavor and texture was so unique,” he says, “and I loved its versatility from being made with the traditional soybean to other tempeh styles, like chickpea or farro.” All kinds of tempeh start with legumes or grains, which are soaked, cooked, mixed with a bacteria culture, and then left to incubate at a temperature of about 80 to 90 degrees for 24 to 32 hours to let a white mycelium form to make all those legumes stick together. That resulting funky flavor and chewy texture provide ready-to-go meatiness. At his spot next door to Butterfunk, Brooklyn Commune, it fits right in with their plant-forward, farm-to-table approach.
Butterfunk, though, serves a menu based on Scott’s family’s cooking over seven generations, dating back to slavery. There weren’t any vegetarians (or Indonesians, for that matter) in his ancestry. Yet he found a way to make it work, using Queens-based brand Barry’s Tempeh. “We prepare it in the old-school method of chicken-fried steak. Tempeh is a better fit than tofu on our menu. After all, soybeans are a product that are grown by black farmers, now and during slavery times. It was and is an integral part of the diet of Southerners,” he explains, as it uses the whole bean. “Tofu, in that form, is not.”
Tempeh became a major vegetarian protein player in the U.S. when the authors of The Book of Tofu, William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, turned their attention toward it in their 1979 release The Book of Tempeh. They provide instructions on making your own along with recipes for traditional dishes, like grilled tempeh with kemangi in coconut-milk sauce, along with the much less classic tempeh guacamole. While their writing goes through extensive pains to ground the dish in its place of origin, the brand you’re now most likely to find at Whole Foods, Lightlife, is based in Massachusetts. It’s no wonder so few people have any idea that it’s Indonesian.
The strange history of tempeh in the U.S. will hopefully see reformation through the success of restaurants like Awang Kitchen, which are serving it without apology the way it was intended. Butterfunk, though, presents a challenge.
“Just like the farm-to-table movement, where we’re trying to recognize the farmers who grow our food,” says Tanumihardja, “we should be aware that every cuisine and every dish within that cuisine comes with cultural provenance, too.” She’s talking about tempeh, but it applies to soul food too. Are vegans owed a dish at every restaurant, even when chefs are trying to tell a specific and historic story? The answer doesn’t go down as easy as those chicken-fried beans.