Tempeh in Gainesville

Jose Caraballo, the man behind the tempeh at the Tempeh Shop in northwest Gainesville, has been making the product for 20 years. The shop sells the soybean-based Indonesian cuisine staple to local restaurants with a large vegetarian clientele including The Top, Chopstix and Mellow Mushroom.

DANNY GHITIS/Special to The Sun
Published: Saturday, April 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 31, 2006 at 11:22 p.m.
As Gainesville diners' palates become attuned to more exotic cuisines - Indian, Singapore, Thai, Northern Italian, Jamaican, fusion American - the sources of those ingredients begin to also become arcane.
One needs to search far and wide for cinnamon bark, alanga and ackee, ingredients for some of those dishes.
But not tempeh - the Indonesian staple that has snuck into menus at not only eclectic Asian restaurants but also mainstream eateries such as The Top and Maude's Cafe.
Tempeh (pronounced tem-pay) - a tender but chewy white cake of cooked soybeans that can be prepared in hundreds of ways - is being made right here, one of four wholesale suppliers of the product in the United States and the only one in Florida.
The Tempeh Shop, 125 NW 23rd Ave., produces up to 1,000 pounds of tempeh every week. Founder Jose Caraballo, a tempeh maker here for nearly 25 years, and partner Arthur Guy spend several days each week cracking, cooking, packaging and fermenting organic soybeans into the cakes that are sold to restaurants all over Gainesville and - if Guy has his way - all over the Southeast. They also sell directly to the public four afternoons a week.
"We prefer not to sell to retail outlets like grocery stores," Caraballo said. "This way we remain closer connected to the end user, and preserve the quality of the product."
The process to make - or "grow" tempeh, since it is a "living" product - is relatively simple. A large stainless steel vat is filled with water and heated to 180 degrees. Fifty pounds of dried soybeans - organic, from a farm in Nebraska - are first run through a food mill to dehull the beans and crack them in half, then poured into the vat. The temperature is raised to 212 degrees and then turned off. The vat is covered and allowed to sit for about 45 minutes. About half the hulls are skimmed off (they aren't inedible - in fact, they are full of fiber; they are added to Guy's compost pile) and the water drained.
The soaked soybeans are then piled in 10-pound batches into another open vat hung on the wall at about a 45-degree angle. It spins slowly while a blast of fresh air dries the beans slightly.
"This is preferable to commercially prepared tempeh you may find in a health store," Guy said, "for two reasons. First, the U.S. government requires it be steamed, which essentially 'kills' the bean. Tempeh is really a 'living' product, as it is inoculated with a bacteria, much like cheese is made. Then other large manufacturers use a centrifuge to dry the beans, which doesn't do it evenly - air doesn't reach all the surface of the beans, which allows them to absorb moisture evenly."
After drying, the beans are inoculated with a sprinkling of Rhizopus oligosporus, packaged in flat 32-ounce batches and incubated at 90 degrees for about a day or so. It is then frozen.
Among tempeh's nutritional resume - which includes calcium, potassium, phosphorus, folate, amino acids and isoflavones and a small amount of saturated fat - is it is second only to beef liver as the premium natural source of vitamin B-12. It has virtually no carbohydrates - 16 grams in half a cup - and has 165 calories per 4 ounces.
The inoculant "eats" the sugars, which are the carbs, which creates a higher quality protein than originally found in the soybeans.
Soy tempeh has 13 grams of protein per 3 ounces. The same amount of ground beef has 15 grams, lean ground beef has 18 grams and chicken breasts have 14 grams.
"You are getting something here you aren't getting from any other item in the American diet," Guy said.
And - this is important to those who shy from tofu - it tastes good, Guy said.
Caraballo, originally from Cuba, came to the United States in the 1960s. During the 1970s he visited a spiritual hippie community in Tennessee called The Farm. "There people were experimenting with various kinds of food products to supplement an all-vegetarian diet. On my first day at The Farm I was served this deep-fried patty of something that I had never seen before. I ventured to try it and I was pleasantly surprised by the texture and flavor. . . . Whatever that was felt and tasted like real food to me unlike other vegetarian inventions that were made to look like meat but always left me hungry.
"That's when I first heard the word tempeh, and I doubt that I would have stuck to vegetarianism for all these years without the 'protein kick' that it gives me."
Caraballo learned to make it at home, and when he moved to Gainesville in the 1980s, introduced it to his friends. He began making a 2-gallon pot, then a 5-gallon - ever increasing until he reached about half a ton a week. It sells for about $3 a pound.
With a background in electronics and a penchant for inventing, he has built his own tempeh-making devices including the grinding and drying machines and the rack system for incubation in an insulated room.
Guy, who owned Steamer's restaurant for several years, said when he first started serving tempeh there, he would sell four 3-ounce patties a day. When he sold the restaurant last July, he was going through 50 pounds a week.
Guy said a dozen other restaurants offer many dishes utilizing tempeh, including The Top, Satchel's Pizza, Reggae Shack and Chop Stix. Chop Stix uses the local tempeh in many dishes, including the cashew nut tempeh and thai ginger tempeh. "It's always very good," their spokesman said.
The Tempeh Shop is open Tuesdays through Fridays from 3 to 6 p.m.
Marina Blomberg can be reached at (352) 374-5025 or blombem@gvillesun.com

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