Sustainable Production and Consumption: A Tale of Tempe…

Tempe wrapped in banana leaves
The tempe undergoing fermentation: you can see the mold starting to do its magic.
Before “it’s a wrap!”
Arif’s tempe wrapped in teak leaves



Haven’t been here for a while… perhaps because I have been under with dissertation fever!

But now I / we have been tasked with writing a bit about sustainable production and consumption. To be honest, I don’t want to get all ‘researchy and academicky’ but I think one of the most powerful sustainable production and consumption stories is actually a very simple one – under the topic of local food systems, and specifically that of tempe (sometimes spelled ‘tempeh’) production in Java, Indonesia. As I write this, I am actually in West Java, driving to a customer site, and on my left and right are rice fields and soybean fields, the soybean fields being related to this blog’s topic.

Tempe is basically a fermented soybean product, usually made in cake-like or block-shaped form, sliceable like cheese, and used in hundreds of dishes – fried, deep-fried, boiled, sautéed, baked, you name it. It is sold throughout Indonesia, but my point of reference is in central Java. Some perspective first of all: the total population of Java is about 145 million people, crammed onto an island half the size (128,000 square km.) of the American state of Oregon (252,000 square km.)! Of this total population, I am sure 99% of the people eat tempe at least occasionally, and most probably eat it every few days or so. I proudly admit I am one of those 145 million people. Tempe is a key, staple food ingredient, and completely vegetarian, literally feeding the world’s 4th most populated nation.

I have a friend who is a small time farmer in central Java, Arif is his name. Besides farming, he supplements his income with a home tempe production business with his wife. I see this as a simple example of sustainable production and consumption, because the footprint is so minimal. He grows the soybeans, his wife prepares them with a fermentation culture bacillus called ‘ragi’ locally, and after a few days, voila, one has tempe. Packaging is also totally organic – they wrap each tempe ‘cake’ in teak leaves while fermenting, and this imparts a unique flavor – sort of like the terroir concept in winemaking. Normally, tempe is sold wrapped in banana leaves, and when cooked the flavor is different from being wrapped in teak leaves.

Now, this simple process is multiplied hundreds of thousands of times over on a daily basis in Java by families and/or small cottage businesses, and all of Indonesia actually, but the total footprint – soybeans, ‘ragi,’ some water for mixing, is minimal. This is pretty much already scaled as well, so scaled in fact, that it has become part of the culture and behavior of Indonesia / Indonesians. There is no corporate or industrial size involvement here – just simple, clean, inexpensive production that delivers a powerful and tasty protein punch – without the inherent and messy problems of large scale meat production, for example! I know the answers to the problems of sustainability are complex and require systems thinking on the large scale, but often times one comes across a simple scenario that makes a meaningful contribution to sustainability, even though that was never its original intent. There is an elegance to that.






8 thoughts on “Sustainable Production and Consumption: A Tale of Tempe…

  1. Hello The Stain Home,

    It’s very interesting to read about this local food production in Indonesia. I must admit that there are a number of interesting stories about local traditional food production in our region, Southeast Asia. From where I come from, there is a national project called OTOP which stands for ‘One Tambon (meaning sub-district) One Product’. It is a local entrepreneurship stimulus program which aims to support the unique locally made and marketed products of each Thai tambon all over Thailand. This project actially drew its inspiration from Japan’s successful One Village One Product (OVOP) programme, and encourages village communities to improve local product quality and marketing. It selects one superior product from each tambon to receive formal branding as a “starred OTOP product”, and provides a local and international stage for the promotion of these products. OTOP products are varied depending on the “highlight” or “abandoned resources” or “local wisdom” in each tambon. This of course includes foods amongst all others (such as handicrafts, cotton and silk garments, pottery, fashion accessories, and household items). So far a number of product groups have been classified for promotion; these include food items and beverages, textiles and clothing, woven handicrafts, artistry items, gifts, household and decorative items, and non-edible herbal products. Different regions are noted for specific types of products. Particularly for in Eastern part of Thailand, this region is famous for its fruits – both fresh and processed including mangosteen, durian and more. I hope you have tried them before 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a very interesting read, and I am glad you included photos, because it helps me understand it better. There is beauty in the natural. Both the soy, and the ingrained part of how Indonesians incorporate it into their diet and their way of life by growing on their own piece of land. It seems that this harmony would be wrecked if it somehow became a national effort to create an industry and label it sustainable. It is a pity that here in the U.S. we seemed to have forgotten how to do this (farming at a household level), and in the process how to eat well.

    I have seen ‘tempe’ listed in many places regarding food, but never never knew its origins as a food product.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I was also wondering if there are any other ‘invisible’ sustainable products in Indonesia. What is the most consistent and prevalent food source for them? Do they have challenges in their food chain, or does tempe fill large potential voids for them? Sources say it is a meat analog and high in protein– it seems like it would be a good fit for vegetarians and healthy eaters, as it doesn’t have the fat content.
    When I looked up ‘vegetable burgers’ I saw the ingredient ‘soy protein concentrate.’ This may be it– snuck into our food chain. yum!


    1. They do, and it’s tempe’s sister: TOFU. Lots of tofu is also eaten, although I couldn’t guess what the ratio of tempe to tofu is, but tofu’s right up there. There is also a by-product from the tempe / tofu processes called ‘oncom,’ and it’s tempe-like in consistency, although not as widely eaten as tempe.

      I suppose the biggest food chain challenge might be sometimes soy beans are imported because domestic production cannot supply the whole country.


  4. Thank you for the images and explanation of tempe production. Tempe not only sounds like a great example of sustainability production at the micro-level for self-sufficient communities, but also something I’d love to taste some day! I am also enlightened by the OTOP products, both of which are great examples of sustainable production.

    The discussion makes me wonder whether many of the sustainable solutions to food shortages and wastage can be found from traditional solutions. Whilst growing up in the countryside of the UK, it was the norm for many to grow their own herbs and vegetables in their own gardens, however, years of consumerism, hyper-supermarkets, fast-food/ convenience food, have all changed the way we purchase and consume food. With the cost of fresh produce increasingly becoming higher, many people are trying to find ways to move back to farming in order to grow their own food, to be more self sufficient and less dependent on retail and local government. “Green consumerism’ is on the rise with many rejecting the high prices of retail supermarkets (‘dependent consumerism’). Within this context, is there a call to go back to the basics… to become more self-sufficient as consumers…to reject petrol guzzling large vehicle purchases, long-haul flights, and meat consumption? I believe as we become more and more aware of our footprint in the world, the more we question everything.

    Is it the end of consumerism as we know it? An interesting article in the Independent questioned this in 2010 and suggested that we should embrace a basic future: “Habits that are firmly set – from where people live to what they eat – will all need to be altered and in many cases simplified or minimised… From Earth’s perspective, the American or even the European way of life is simply not viable.”

    If businesses could see the above as an opportunity and approach this as a potentially new sustainable business model where the consumer is not necessarily just at the end of the chain, but part of the beginning of the supply chain also, then perhaps we have the chance to become a truly circular economy, which would support a more viable way of life for the future.

    The end of consumerism: Our way of life is ‘not viable’


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