The Tale of Tempeh
The history of tempeh and how a visionary Massachusetts-based company took it mainstream.
BY VICKI MARTINEZ
Tempeh (pronounced TEM-pay) is a centuries-old soy-based food believed to have originated on the island of Java, today's Indonesia. Amazingly, the Javanese at the time, with no help from modern-day chemistry or microbiology, perfected the art of fermentation.
Although it had been around for a while, tempeh didn't peak worldwide interest until the 1960s. Two groups—the Agricultural Experiment Station at Cornell University and the USDA Northern Regional Research Center—began intense research on tempeh and fermentation. Interestingly, both groups at the time had recently added Indonesian scientists to their teams. It's believed that Yap Bwee Hwa (with Cornell) and Ko Swan Djien (of the USDA) are responsible for spiking interest in this fermented soybean food.
Between 1961 and 1975, a series of tempeh shops sprouted up in California. These were the first known tempeh companies in America. All were started by Indonesian Americans. By the mid-1970s, tempeh gained traction thanks to the bulk production (up to 60 pounds daily) at The Farm. An “intentional community” of “hippies and beatniks” in Tennessee, The Farm is credited with introducing vegetarians and vegans in America to tempeh.
In July 1977, Robert Rodale, health guru and champion for organic farming published an article in Prevention magazine [which ran as the cover story] titled “Tempeh, a New Health Food Opportunity.” Tempeh was making a name for itself.
Up until now, tempeh production occurred only in places like The Farm and in small tempeh shops, serving many types of organic food products. In late September 1979, Michael Cohen—who learn the art of tempeh-making at The Farm—founded Tempeh Works, the first American company with a commercial building designed solely for tempeh production. Only two years later, Tempeh Works was fermenting nearly 7,000 pounds of tempeh weekly.
Tempeh Works changed its name to Lightlife Foods in 1984 and is currently a leader, not only in tempeh, but in plant-based foods made without GMOs, artificial fillers, additives or highly processed ingredients.
And if that doesn't make you feel great about getting your tempeh from Lightlife, consider this: In 2020, Lightlife’s parent company Greenleaf Foods announced it had officially become a 100% carbon neutral company!