Saturday, November 8, 2008

Fried Spicy Tempe

Tempe is a cheap local source of protein. It is soybeans in a sort of cake, formed into a log. It can be sliced and deep-fried. Here is a log of tempe wrapped in a banana leaf.

The following is a Javanese recipe that goes by a lot of different names, most of which include the words “fried,” “dried,” and “tempe.” (They are: tempe kering, tempe bumbu kering, sambel goreng tempe, sambel goreng kering, and tempe orek.) I decided I wanted to learn to make it in order to save our budget a bit. At first I kind of guessed how to make it, guided by a few tips from a kind lady in the market where I bought the ingredients for my first batch. Then I got some more advice from a friend who is a caterer. My husband also got some advice from a food vendor. But the person who helped the most was my housekeeper. She’s the one who explained that you have to fry the tempe before you sautee the garlic and onions. To an American, this is a very counterintuitive recipe!
1 log of tempe
cooking oil
1 or 2 small fresh red peppers
a handful of string beans (buncis)
3 – 6 shallots (small red onions)
2 – 4 cloves of garlic
lemon grass (serai) (optional)
turmeric root (optional)
a flavor enhancer (e.g. Royko)
about ½ log palm sugar, grated (or 2 – 3 tablespoons brown or white sugar)
1/8 to ¼ cup water
In a large frying pan, heat just enough oil to deep-fry the tempe. Slice the tempe into strips and deep fry. You may need to fry it in two batches.
Drain on paper towels. Frying the tempe is the step that will take the longest. While it is frying, you can do the prep work for the other ingredients.
Rinse and bias-cut the red peppers and the string beans, stringing the beans first if necessary.
Poach the peppers and beans in a little water until done (about 10 minutes), then drain and set aside.
Grate the shallots and garlic. Optionally, grate a small amount of turmeric. Also optionally, cut the lemon grass into 1-centimeter pieces and crush it slightly to release the flavor. When all the tempe is draining on paper towels, there should be a few tablespoons of oil left. If not, cool and pour off any excess oil. Add the grated onions and garlic, and the other optional spices if using. Reheat the oil and sautee the spices, meanwhile sprinkling a packet of flavor enhancer such as Royko over the mixture. (Those allergic to MSG may leave this ingredient out, but you will not have the authentic Indonesian taste.)
When the spices are soft and fragrant, add the tempe back to the pan and stir gently so as to coat the tempe with the sauteed spice mixture without causing the tempe strips to fall apart. When the tempe is well coated, turn off the heat. Add the palm sugar and a little water. (I grate the palm sugar directly onto the tempe.) If the flavor enhancer you used is not very salty, you may need to to add salt. Turn the heat on low. Cook and stir until the sugar and water has become a brown glaze on the tempe strips. When this step is almost done, add the peppers and beans.
Voila! This dish is usually served with rice that has been cooked in a solution of water and coconut milk.

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