KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 4 — Chang Jun Hong peels off the banana leaf and paper packaging gingerly to reveal what looks like a miniature pillow, its thin and gauze-like casing filled with whitish, halved beans. “This was packed about 12 hours ago,” Jun Hong explains. “The fuzzy ‘skin’ you see over the beans is mycelium.”
That’s a type of fungus that grows over and binds soy beans together through a fermentation process, eventually solidifying into chewy, nougat-like tempeh. “It will be ready for consumption after fermenting for 36 hours,” says Chan Yu Qian, Jun Hong’s mother.
The mother and son pair sell their organic tempeh under the brand name Meraki, a Greek word that means using one’s passion, heart and soul to do something. It describes them to a T; talk to them about tempeh making or watch them at work and their meraki is clear as day.
It began about five years ago, after Chan retired from an office job she had held for 35 years. Not wanting to sit idle, she took up tempeh making at the suggestion of an ex-colleague and later flew to Central Java to learn from an Indonesian tempeh maker. After six months of constant practice, she felt ready to sell her tempeh. The first to stock them was organic retailer, Justlife.
“They’re very particular about what they sell at the stores so the first thing they did was send three of their staff to observe me making tempeh.” Chan uses organic soy beans from Australia, which does not come cheap but gives the results she wants. “I don’t care about the cost... it must be good produce so that the tempeh will taste good.”
The final product may look, literally, like a piece of cake but getting it from raw ingredients to shelf-ready is definitely not. The recipe calls for multiple tedious, time-consuming procedures. From start to finish, it takes nearly six days to produce tempeh. Chan used to do everything alone, with occasional help from Jun Hong.
“I was working in customer service before this, based at home, and would help my mum out every now and then,” Jun Hong reveals. “I saw how tough it was for her to go about it all buy herself. Often, she would start at 5am and only finished at midnight.” In 2016, he quit his job and since then, has been working hand-in-hand with his mother. At the moment, Meraki rolls out about 100 pieces of tempeh a day.
They are assisted by two part-timers but the workload really should be handled by more people as every step is intricate and detail oriented. First, the beans need to sorted by size and the broken bits weeded out before they are fed, a handful at a time, through a machine that dehulls and splits them in half. Another round of sorting follows, to pick out the skins and other loose bits such as purine, tiny stems in the heart of the beans that can lead to uric acid build-up.
The beans are then thoroughly washed until the water — purified using three filters — runs clear and during this step, any remaining skins are picked out. This is followed by boiling for about 30 minutes, during which a dense and soap-like foam called saponin rises from the beans, and needs to be scooped out by hand. In the last five minutes, pandan is added to impart a subtle aroma.
A good soaking is required next; the beans are submerged in water for 20-24 hours. Another round of boiling and washing commences after that, and then the beans are spun in small batches (1 kilogram each time) using a specialised machine sourced from Taiwan. Once dry, the beans are mixed with ragi, a starter made from brown rice.
Finally, the mixture is packed by hands into 100 gram bundles, wrapped in banana leaves (which are also put through a lengthy sorting, cleaning and chilling process beforehand) and a wrap made from food-grade paper. The packaging was designed by Chan’s daughter, MK.
The leaves have to be cut into the required size and lightly scored using a small knife to allow the beans to breathe. This was something Chan and Jun Hong chanced upon following countless trials and errors. “The success rate used to be only about 50%,” Jun Hong reveals, referring to the beans not always fermenting properly or thoroughly after packing. “The edges would harden as they should but the centres remained soft.” Chan also recalls a large order she took on but was unable to deliver on the day as the tempeh didn’t turn out as hoped. “Even my teacher couldn’t tell me why it was happening.”
For Jun Hong, it was very frustrating as the failure rate was high and rendered their efforts futile. “Coming from a customer service background, you can imagine how painful it was to have to face such uncertainty.”
The answer came when they saw an online video by a tempeh maker. “I used to poke holes in the leaves but the beans would dry out,” Chan recalls, “so I thought I needed to leave them intact. Turns out, small incisions are all that’s needed.” A smaller square of leaf is layered over to help absorb vapour and prevent the bigger leaf from curling up, another nifty trick that Chan devised by accident. She had slipped in an extra piece while packing one of the bundles and later realised that that slab of tempeh held its shape well.
As fermentation throws up heat, the wrapped packages will be warm to the touch. You know the tempeh is ready to be eaten when it feels firm. Unwrap it and you will see bits of tempeh formed on the outer layer of the banana leaf, with greyish or dark streaks across. Like mycelium, it’s a natural by-product of the fermentation and is safe to eat.
You can also refer to the sticker on the back, which indicates the date of consumption — not expiry. “There’s no expiration as such, the tempeh will just continue to ferment. It’s best eaten on the date shown but if you leave it for one more day, the flavours actually intensify,” Chan explains. “I know someone who stored our tempeh in the freezer for 20 days and it was still ok, although the colour and texture will change.” If it gives off a sharp smell or turns mushy, however, you need to throw it out.
Tempeh has been hailed as superfood, said to be packed with amino acids and helpful in alleviating a wide range of health concerns, from constipation to gout and hormonal imbalances. It’s an ideal protein for vegetarians such as Chan herself, who has gone off meat for a decade now. Fermentation helps reduce the size of food molecules, making it easier for the body to digest. Want to know the exact nutritional breakdown of Meraki’s tempeh? Just look at the label, which displays with results of a laboratory test conducted by SGS, a global company specialising in inspection, verification, testing and certification.
Freshly made, organic tempeh such as Meraki’s is best eaten raw to enjoy the full benefits of its probiotics and enzymes. “Those will be lost if you cook the tempeh,” Chan cautions, “but as it contains many other minerals and vitamins, it is still very nutritious.” Chan recommends wrapping slices of raw tempeh in roasted seaweed to enjoy it as a snack. If you don’t finish it within the same day, keep it in the refrigerator, in the eggs compartment which is a little warmer.
For more ideas on how to serve tempeh, you can visit her daughter MK’s café, February 18. MK will be serving a plant-based menu that will, of course, feature Meraki’s tempeh. In fact, the two outfits share a kitchen so the tempeh that will be served at the café is as fresh as it gets!
Meraki Tempeh is available at Justlife outlets and various organic shops in the Klang Valley, Johor and Penang. For the full list of outlets and direct orders, go to their Facebook page (/mymeraki96) or Instagram (@mymeraki.com.my)
February 18 Cafe is at No.42, GF Jalan Lazat 2, Taman Gembira, Kuala Lumpur. Opens 12pm-8.30pm, Thurs-Mon; closed Tues & Wed
For more details, go to their Facebook page.