Returning to Malaysia in 2013 after 15 years working in Singapore, 48-year-old Alzari “Joey” Mahshar set himself a mission – to popularise tempeh in his home country.

Tempeh is a soya bean cake from Indonesia made with natural culturing and a controlled fermentation process that binds soya beans. A staple in Indonesia, it goes well with salads, spicy condiments or as crisps.

One of Joey’s fondest memories of Singapore was enjoying tempeh. Being so close to Indonesia, tempeh is easy accessible in the city and is used in many popular dishes.

But the same couldn’t be said for Malaysia, so Joey decided to take matters into his own hands and learn how to make tempeh from scratch.

Joey decided that Instead of competing directly with established tempeh producers in Malaysia he would create his own recipes.

“I use mung beans, chick peas or black beans. I do [it] with every legume that I [can] get hold off, say like lima beans. And it taste nice,” he says.

Global growth

The father of two realised the potential of tempeh after spending time researching online and having many conversations with scientists and experts in fermentation. The bean cake has a huge following in Europe and Scandinavian countries.

“If you type in #tempeh on Instagram, you’ll find so many posts!” he says.

A quick search for #tempeh reveals nearly 190,000 posts , not counting the variations of tempeh hashtags from all around the world.

Its soaring popularity is being driven by the popularity of veganism and vegetarianism. More people than ever are seeking meat-free protein or alternative protein sources.

Data from Meticulous Research showed that this plant-based protein sector is expected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 6.7% from 2017 to 2022 to over US$10.8 billion (SG$14.8 billion) in four years’ time.

One other reason Joey wants to aggressively grow the Malaysian tempeh movement is to break the perception of bean cakes being a “cheap” food. “I get put off when people think cheap food is not good quality food.”

Tempeh is not admired in the same way as quinoa or chia seeds, despite being a highly nutritious source of protein. Data from the United States Department of Agriculture’s nutrient database shows that 100 grams of tempeh contains just over 20 gram of protein, 7 grams of carbohydrates and 11 grams of fat. That is roughly the same amount of protein as in 100 grams of chicken and 75% of the protein in 100 grams of beef.

Falling in love with tempeh

Knowing that tempeh has an Indonesian heritage, Joey felt that he could get more Malaysians to fall in love with the bean cakes.

He is also confident that his experiments with different beans have given him the edge over his rivals. Tempeh made with garbanzo beans, for example, leaves a rich, filling and satisfying feeling, he says.

To get more people producing tempeh, Joey commits to a monthly tempeh-making classes in an organic food store in Petaling Jaya, a middle class and affluent suburb just outside Malaysia’s capital.

His students comprise not only local food enthusiasts but also Singaporeans, Japanese and Westerners, some of whom have flown into Malaysia just to attend his three-hour workshop.

For RM150 (SG$50) per person, Joey shows students how skilful he is with tempeh, but he doesn’t keep his recipe secret.

He provides the materials and verbal instructions but no notes as he expects his students learn by being hands-on in class. That encourages them to have the instinct for creating their tempeh style when they produce it at home, he says.

He uses a ragi, the tempeh starter, that is extracted from the hibiscus flower and its spores.

After cooking the soaked beans, the beans are fermented for 48 hours in an incubation area during the day time. The tempeh needs an outside temperature of 30 degrees Celsius to start fermenting.

In preservation, Joey literally takes a “leaf” out of traditional Indonesian practice by using the same type of leaf wrappings to preserve the tempeh.

He uses daun simpoh air (scientific name: Dillenia suffruticosa), and they can be found growing in urban areas of Kuala Lumpur.

“Being porous, the leaves absorbs water and preserve the food longer. What’s more is that it has markings – its spine and grain gives the tempeh character,” he adds.

Every week Joey now supplies 30 to 50 100-gram packet to organic shops in Petaling Jaya and to a farmer’s market in Kuang, about 35 kilometres from the city centre. Each packet is sold for RM5 (SGD1.68).

His favourite tempeh is made with mung beans and garbanzo, but he gets excited when he experiments with new beans. “The best marbling effect I got was from black turtle beans.”

Making tempeh is one thing, eating it another. This is where Joey gets more creative. He says those who enjoy tempeh can try new ways of cooking it instead of deep-frying it.

Mash up the tempeh with kaffir lime leaves and spicy sambal and roll into a ball to replace croutons in salads. Another way is to smoke it or bake it, which gives it a similar taste to bacon. Well, at least that’s what customers say; as a Muslim, Joey laughs that he is unable to do a proper comparison.

His latest twist to tempeh is to tap into the fitness industry by developing tempeh power bars for runners using raisins and almonds.

Tempeh for a good cause

But first, Joey wants his tempeh to help the less fortunate. In April, he ran a pilot project teaching low-income households in Bukit Subang, some 40km from Kuala Lumpur, how to make tempeh.

Some of the 50-odd participants went on to supply tempeh to upmarket homes in Denai Alam in Shah Alam, about 35km from the city centre.

He wants to use the lessons from this workshop to empower lower-income communities, particularly single parents, to be entrepreneurs.

“Give them the confidence to uplift [themselves],” he said, adding that there were plenty of ways for small entrepreneurs to promote themselves. “We’re in the social media age right now. What is it that you can’t do?”

He is now working on a proposal to present to local councils on how tempeh workshops can be part of larger entrepreneurship programmes to empower communities.

But what about competition? Joey isn’t fazed about it – in fact, he says, he wants tempeh to be a buzzing movement so more people can benefit from this healthy source of protein.

Even his own meat-lover sons may one day be converted to becoming tempeh lovers, he laughs.

Aside from tempeh, Joey’s established a homemade brand of peanut butter, along with other spreads which he regularly supplies to stalls and supermarkets. He makes some 500 jars a month and the “spreads” side of the business runs like clockwork so he can focus his energy on tempeh.

In his mission to encourage Malaysians to embrace tempeh, he takes inspiration from others around the world who love the food. He recalls a Russian friend who came up with a way to make tempeh in wintry Russia by converting an old fridge to create the right temperature for fermentation.

“And here we are so blessed with the sun, the [right] temperature and humidity, moisture, so on. Tempeh is something we can do.”

Photos courtesy of Joey

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