23 October 2009

Local Tempeh, Part II: Ingredient Review and Interview with Jaime Berhanu

Here at Cornucopasetic HQ we are weekday vegans and occasional weekend omnivores; each of us is intolerant of dairy to varying degrees. As a result, we end up eating and drinking a lot of soy. Recently I became frustrated with how dependent we are on soy products from away. Then Heiwa Tofu became available, which was great, but I've always been much more fond of fermented soy products, particularly tempeh. As you can see from the preceding post, I was pretty happy to find that Lalibela Farms is making their own tempeh from organic Maine soy beans. Jaime Berhanu—who runs Lalibela with her husband, Andrew—is one of my favorite farmers to speak with at Portland's Saturday market. It is really hard not to smile when talking with her. She was nice enough to do an interview by email this week about her new tempeh. [N.B.: I added all of the links to Jaime's responses below.]

1. This last Saturday you mentioned that tempeh was a project you've had in mind for a long time. What made you want to give it a go now?

We’ve had the desire to make Tempeh, for ourselves for many, many years. Because we are vegan, our protein source is close to the last ingredient in our diet that we do not grow/produce ourselves. The idea had just been floating around until we considered it might be a great product to produce in small amounts and sell locally. We’ve been actively working on making it happen, commercially, for about a year.

I attended a workshop at MOFGA last winter about starting a processed food business and what is required to do that. That gave us an idea of what our options would be, and what type of kitchen we could use to make Tempeh. I knew there were to be many steps involved with getting all the licenses and having a finished product.

We were originally planning on doing it fairly small-scale until this past farming season—it was a challenging one! The rain and disease that was present this year, created a challenge for a good part of the season. We needed to follow through with the commitment we had made to our CSA members, but still needed to bring enough produce to the Farmer’s Market in order to meet our personal cash flow needs. Because of the growing conditions, we weren’t able to get things planted on time, and crops that were already planted did not grow at there “normal” rate. We were left with a very small harvest for a large part of the season. It was a bit of a wake up call for us.

We realized that we need an additional way to generate income, on our own, that we would be more in control over, could easily be done year round, and we could work into our schedule during the farming season. Also, Andy usually works off the farm in the winter, and we have always wanted to eliminate the need for that, so Tempeh was a perfect solution—still food related, seems to have significant demand in certain areas of the state, plus it would provide our vegetarian community with a quality protein source that has organic and local ingredients, and isn’t heavily processed.

We looked at what it would take to make the Tempeh production large enough to make a living, but small enough to handle it ourselves. Combined with the farm, we think we will be able to reach the goals that we have with the Tempeh (We are RIGHT in the middle of discovering the demand for it—so our fingers are crossed)

2. I thought I'd try to make my own soy things recently, but couldn't find a local source for soy beans. Where do you get local organic soy beans?

Our soybeans come from Bull Ridge Farm in Albion, where Henry Perkins grows MOFGA certified organic soybeans (as well as sunflowers which he is now selling oil from!)

We have not seen any local organic beans available at stores, either. I think a lot of the local organic soybeans are grown mostly for animal feed.

3. I have a sense for how to make soy milk, tofu and even soy yogurt, but tempeh seems like it requires magic. How is it made? Is it magic?

The process of making Tempeh is fascinating! Definitely some natural magic involved! The ingredients are simple, and I love that the fermentation process transforms the beans into an amazing food that is loaded with nutrients, including Vitamin B12, which is difficult to get if you are a vegan. I often think about how hundreds of years ago, somewhere in Indonesia, someone discovered the ability to turn soybeans into Tempeh…amazing!

Basically, Tempeh is made by cracking, dehulling, and cooking soybeans. Then they are inoculated with a Rhizopus spore, which after about 20-22 hours of incubation (when the fermentation & magic happens) at 88° F, mycelium forms and binds the soybeans together into its sliceable form!

The process takes us about five hours of fairly passive preparation (a lot of this time is downtime, cleaning and waiting for the cook time or cool time), then the overnight incubation, and the following morning we vacuum seal the individual bags and refrigerate them until they are sold.

4. With local tofu and now tempeh available, there's still a market for soy milk and may be even natto. Do you have any plans for any other Lalibela products?

We are starting out with a Soybean-only Tempeh (that is what we have at the Market right now). We will eventually have other varieties of Tempeh: multi-grain, and a non-soy Tempeh made with a different Maine grown organic bean, like Garbanzo beans, possibly.

Because we don’t own our own farm yet, we are renting a kitchen to produce our Tempeh, which we have had licensed as a commercial kitchen. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. One disadvantage is that we have to drive (8 miles) to the kitchen. While it is not really that far, it being a rented kitchen does mean that we are somewhat limited on when we can be there. When we own our own kitchen, we will be able to expand to possibly other products depending on what volume we are doing. At this point its hard to know, we want to be able to continue our farming, so we’ll have to see!

Tempeh does produce a “by-product” called okara, which is the hulls of the soybeans. I understand you can make soymilk from this, so we might try to produce some for ourselves and see what happens! (Heiwa Tofu also produces this “by-product” and advertises it’s availability, so someone might want to jump on that idea!)

5. Do you have a favorite tempeh recipe?

Tempeh Reuben Sandwich!

A browned patty of Tempeh with oil and a little Tamari, on toasted Rye bread with vegan Thousand Island dressing (or mustard) and Thirty Acre Farm’s Sauerkraut—delicious and easy!

6. Where can we find your tempeh other than at the farmer's market?

We are right in the middle of marketing our Tempeh to local stores and restaurants…we have only been licensed for 1 week! So far we have gotten orders from: Royal River Natural Foods in Freeport (they already have it as I write this), Lois’ Natural Marketplace in Scarborough, and Morning Glory Natural Foods in Brunswick.

We are talking with almost 20 different places, so we expect that list to grow greatly!

7. Will you be selling it at the winter farmer's market in Brunswick?

We are applying for a booth at the Brunswick Winter Market, and are keeping our fingers crossed! They currently have a moratorium on new vendors, so we’ll see what happens!

8. Will we see it in any restaurants soon?

We have brought samples to a number of restaurants, mostly in the Portland area. We should know more by next week.

9. Was it difficult to bring tempeh to the market? Tell us about some of the obstacles you had to overcome to bring us tempeh. Also, what advice can you give to other artisans who want to bring something like this to the market?

Because I attended a workshop on processed foods and kitchen licensing, I think I had pretty clear expectations of what it was going to take to make it happen, as well as knowing that the process would take some time. I wouldn’t necessarily call them obstacles, but there were many steps to having a final, “legal product”. For example:

  • Make several successful batches with taste-test approval from friends and family
  • Find supplies, supplies, and more supplies!
  • Find a kitchen to rent that would qualify as a licensed commercial kitchen, that was fairly close to where we live, work out the details/arrangements with them.
  • Send a sample of our Tempeh to the University of Maine lab where they test for pH levels, proper processing procedures, and safety as a low-acid food.
  • Apply for 3 separate licenses (Commercial Food Processor(the Kitchen), Food Storage Warehouse (to store it at our Farm), and Mobile Vendor (to sell it at the Farmer’s Market).
  • Get general liability and product liability insurance.
  • Do test batches in the new kitchen to make necessary adjustments to our new space.
  • Design a label, making sure it meets state requirements.
  • Send the City of Portland our licenses to sell it at the Market.
  • Market the Tempeh to possible wholesale accounts- retail stores and restaurants.
As far as advice, I would definitely suggest taking MOFGA’s workshop (I think there’s one coming up soon), and taking time to think your idea through. Having an idea of what your own intentions/goals are: do you want to become a big company and sell out of state, or stay small and sell locally? There are different requirements for each.

I am thankful for my husband and my ability to work together to be able to balance each other with the workload, and talking through ideas or obstacles. It’s also nice to share the work of meeting our business’ needs and our family’s needs together. Having young children can be challenging when you have your own business, but being able to show them through example, of what it means to contribute positively to our community, and to work together is a blessing!

Thank you Jaime!

Also see: Avery Yale Kamila's article (she scooped me!) in the PPH.

I picked up two packages of the inaugural tempeh and tried them out this week. I baked some in a marinade of mustard, soy, apple cider and garlic and made a tempeh maafe from the second package. Just like Heiwa Tofu is much better than any other tofu you can buy here, Lalibela's tempeh is better than anything you're going to buy from away. It's beautifully made and tastes wonderful. It's a bit fresher than say the Lifelight tempeh you've probably had before, and it's hard to describe the quality of that flavor, but it's wonderfully good.

Cornucopasetic Bonus Recipe: Vegan Dressing for Tempeh Reuben Sandwiches
Adapted from Leslie McEachern, The Angelica Home Kitchen (2000)
  • 1.2 lbs. silken tofu (so right off the bat I'm not using local tofu in my local soy post …)
  • the juice from 1/2 a lemon (or maybe a little less)
  • 1 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 to 2 tsp. dijon mustard
  • 2 Tbs. rice syrup
Puree the above in a food processor or blender until smooth, then add:
  • 2/3 cu. sun dried tomatoes, rehydrated in hot water, then drained and minced
Puree a bit further, but not so much that it becomes perfectly smooth. It should have a nice color though. Next, stir in the following:
  • 1 Tbs. red onion, finely diced
  • 1/3 cu. diced cornichons and
  • some finely chopped parsley
Then season it with salt, pepper and any additional lemon juice if it needs it.

For the sandwich, I recommend Mother Oven's Greek Peasant bread, kraut from Thirty Acres Farm as Jaime suggests, and, of course Jaime's tempeh. Be sure to slice the tempeh so that you get thin sandwich sized slices. In other words, if the block of tempeh is 3" by 6", slice it so that you end up with two thin 3" by 6" pieces, then cut those into smaller strips.

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