Plant-based proteins may be today’s buzzwords but tempeh has a long history that predates modern science by centuries. What was created in Java, Indonesia has fast become a global food item.
Attempts at writing its history tend to be murky at best, as much of Southeast Asian lore is orally passed, or written on palm leaves. That said, tempeh’s earliest surviving mention can be found in the Serat Centhini, a tome detailing the Javanese way of life recorded in the 1800s but tell of stories in the centuries before.
Yet no one knows how the first tempeh was discovered. Some claim that it’s the product of an accident from the arrival of soy and tofu manufacturing in the 1700s, while other Indonesian culinary historians point out the fact that Java alone is home to several native soy varieties on culinary record since the 13th century.
Given that Indonesia’s history is one of sprawling Buddhist and Hindu empires, it’s easy to see how non-meat proteins would be part of the daily diet — a culinary culture that continues to flourish today despite the decline of these mighty thalassocratic kingdoms.
Singapore’s tempeh history
Tempeh was such a fixture on the Javanese dining table that early Javanese migrants brought the artistry of tempeh making to colonial Singapore as they set up families and communities.
The first Javanese to arrive in British Singapore (we’re careful to use the term British Singapore as Java and Temasek has a long history) came in 1820, shortly after Stamford Raffles established Singapore as a trading outpost. Some were skilled artisans in metal-smithing and leatherwork while many others were merchants who owned businesses in textiles, spices and religious publications.
Others came as labourers in search of work, fleeing from a Dutch colonial government that was running Java’s economy to the ground.
By 1931, a population consensus showed that the Javanese community in Singapore numbered 16,063, scattered across the island but concentrated in a few villages.
One of them was Kampung Tempe, located in present day Sixth Avenue that was renowned for its flourishing tempeh-making cottage industry.
This slice of Singapore history is deliciously compiled into a beautiful tome by authors Yahaya Sanusi and Hidayah Amin in vivid description — a good bulk of which is through oral history interviews. In it, the writers note that the village had as many as five families producing over 5,000 pieces of tempeh daily — the largest scale of tempeh-making in Singapore’s history.
Soybeans are easily available and relatively cheap, but the production of tempeh starter is a closely guarded secret.
Once the tempeh was ready, it would be loaded onto bicycle racks every morning and as many as 10 paddlers would cycle around the island selling tempeh from the village.
So what happened to Kampung Tempe?
By the 70s, the government begun issuing notices to kampungs and settlements all around Singapore for resettlement. As Singapore’s economy roared forward, villagers began leaving these areas and moving into HDB estates.
A hundred years after the founding of Kampung Tempe, the village is all but gone. Today, Sixth Avenue is a prime district. But look a little closer and you’ll see two things remain: the mosque, Masjid Al-Huda and the road name, Jalan Haji Alias — named after the man who founded the Kampung Tempe settlement in 1905.
As decades of nation-building went by, the Javanese identity too melded into the mainstream. The Javanese language is barely spoken, and the community became part of the Malay population with as many as 50-60 percent of the community having some Javanese ancestry.
A note from Tempeh Culture’s founders
As fourth generation Javanese Singaporeans, we take great pride in tempeh-making. We’re custodians of this tradition and history. Each time we make a batch, we recognise that this humble food has fed our families for generations.
To us, tempeh is not just food. It is a symbol of Javanese culture. And we can’t be any prouder to share this delicious staple that we’ve eaten all our lives with you.