How many men does it take to turn an ancient Southeast Asian dietary staple into a locally made Minnesotan delicacy? Just one, if his name is Ryan Billig. Billig is the founder of Tempeh Tantrum, the only organic producer of this fermented soybean cake for hundreds of miles in all directions. His small-batch tempeh gets its superior flavor and texture from local soybeans and time spent in a custom-built, jury-rigged cabinet of fermentation wonders. “I call it Frankenstein, Frank for short,” says Billig.
“Frank” sits in one corner of City Food Studio, the shared-use commercial kitchen where Billig rents space alongside other local food startups in South Minneapolis. It’s basically a vertical container with controlled temperature and humidity. Every few days, Billig soaks a batch of dry soybeans, splits them with a mill and then steams them before adding a natural culture of Rhizopus mold. Then into Frank they go, to ferment for 20–45 hours. The result is a light, savory soy cake just like the ones Billig first fell in love with in Indonesia. Which, he says, is kind of a miracle.
“This stuff is not like sauerkraut, you can’t just find a coolish room in a basement and make it,” he says. “It takes some serious contortions to get the environment right.” While there are many types of tempeh, Billig’s is inspired by the kind he ate while living in the Malang region of Java, a tropical jungle island where temperatures hover around 80°F most of the year. It was different from anything he’d eaten in the U.S., even the tempeh he and his fellow chefs at Hard Times Café had experimented with making in the early `90s. He was also struck by how tempeh was served at every meal in Indonesia, often alongside meat. “I realized tempeh had nothing to do with vegetarianism,” he says. “It’s for everybody.”
When he returned from his yearlong trip, he started tinkering more seriously, driven by the idea that he could give other people the experience he had abroad. He started out by mixing traditional methods—wrapping the soybeans in perforated banana leaves—with less conventional ones; like using his oven as a fermenting box. These early attempts failed more often than not, so he moved on to a water bath method. That gave Tempeh, It’s What’s for Dinner him the taste and texture he’d been seeking. And his friends and family took notice. They started putting in their orders with more and more frequency, until he finally had to develop a makeshift distribution network—mini fridges installed on the porches of friends’ houses throughout the Seward neighborhood. He would make weekly deliveries and collect any cash left in the envelopes taped to the fridges. “It was totally on the honor system, and it was really fun,” says Billig. “But pretty soon we were outgrowing that, and I wanted it to be used by restaurants and co-ops, so I knew I had to shift up.”
Enter the City Food Lab, commercial licensing, and the construction of Frank—a semitorturous experience for Billig, who had no formal training in metalworking nor access to startup capital. It also meant a lot more soybeans. It was important for Billig to find an organic, local solution, and he found one with Eagan-based Grain Millers. A few times a year he rents a truck and drives to their plant in St. Peter to pick up a one-ton pallet of beans (which, if you’re not familiar, comes in a stack of 40 50-lb. bags). “I’m their smallest customer by far,” says Billig. “They’re used to dealing with truckloads, but they were willing to sell to me, as long as I agreed to the one-ton minimum.”
Billig’s commitment to local goes beyond sourcing. He’s had to regretfully decline to send tempeh to enthusiasts outside of the Twin Cities area, because, as he says, “the refrigerated shipping goes against everything in me.” But he’s interested in finding creative solutions to the scaling-up conundrum, one idea being to create kits for people to make their own tempeh at home. Another being to set up studio outposts in different cities. He’s also got plans to go to zero-waste packaging, a nut he hopes one day to crack. “I don’t think it should fall on the small producers to figure this out, when big producers can afford to do it,” says Billig. “But I’m not holding out for someone else to do it. I’m going to keep trying on my own.”
But those are dreams for another day. For now, it’s all about balance. The tempeh business allows him to split parenting time with his wife and take care of their 10 month-old son, while Frank (and the Rhizopus mold) do the all the hard work.
The Royal Tempeh Treatment
For newbies, Billig recommends slicing the tempeh pretty thin and simply sautéing it in your fat of choice, be it coconut oil, olive oil, or butter before serving it with rice, quinoa, or a salad. But because it’s not a prepared food, he warns, it will require seasoning. “It loves salt, and it loves garlic,” Billig says. “So if you love garlic too, it can take as much as you can give it.” Feeling more adventurous? Try Billig’s favorite preparation, a traditional Javanese dish called Tempe Penyet, or “crushed tempeh.”
Tempe Penyet, aka Crushed Tempeh
8 oz. tempeh
¼ cup olive and/or coconut oil
Optional: additional oil for deep frying
5 cloves of garlic
5 or more fresh, hot chilies
plenty of salt, to taste
Optional: pea-sized smidgen of shrimp paste
1. Slice the tempeh ¼-inch thick, or crumble it into grape-sized pieces, then deep fry it in oil, or steam it for 10 minutes. Heat ¼ cup oil (add more oil to the frying oil if much was absorbed by the tempeh) and when very hot, add the garlic and chilies and cook briefly for about 30 seconds, while stirring. Remove the garlic and chilies from the oil and set aside. The idea is the that the garlic is still firm inside and the chilies are still fresh inside.
2. If you are using shrimp paste, fry briefly now for 30 seconds, then remove and add to the garlic and chilies.
3. Crush the garlic, chilies and shrimp paste with salt in a mortar and pestle or food processor, gradually add the oil that the garlic and chilies were cooked in. In the mortar and pestle, or a bowl, add the tempeh and crush/mix it all together.
Find more of Bilig’s favorite tempeh recipes at tempeh-tantrum.com/recipes