GETTING A SLICE OF THE TEMPE MARKET © Duncan Graham 2005
Next time you sit down to a plate of nutritious tempe or tofu you could be digesting food from Down Under.
Australian farmers are making a vigorous bid to supply the raw product for Indonesia’s premier health foods. These are made from fermented soybeans and enjoyed across Java and other islands as a snack or the main course.
Three sugarcane growers from Queensland have sent 22 tonnes of beans to Jakarta as a trial shipment. These are being rebagged and distributed to tempe manufacturers in West and East Java to see how the beans compare with those currently used to make the famous food.
The three farmers – Murray Cannavan, Alfio Musumeci and Andrew Lashmar – have been growing soybeans for many years, but as a nutrient for their sugarcane during fallow periods in the production cycle.
When the soybean plants are almost mature they are ploughed into the ground as green fertiliser. Any beans harvested have been sold for stock food. Now the men think it may be a smarter idea to grow soybeans as a cash crop and export these to Indonesia for human consumption.
To learn more about tempe and the market the three men spent a week in Jakarta and Surabaya talking to manufacturers and traders.
Soybeans are indigenous to China and have long been a part of that country’s diet. The bean appeared in Japan about 1,000 years ago but didn’t get to Europe until the 17th century.
Soybeans are now widely used in Western cooking where soymilk and other bean products, including cake, oil and flour are promoted in the health food industry. Vegetarians find soybeans are a good meat substitute, high in calcium. Soy sauce has a place on most kitchen shelves.
Tempe is believed to be an Indonesian invention and has long been a home industry in specific areas. Malang, in central East Java, claims to produce the tastiest product. The town is also famous for its kripik tempe, a crispy cracker made by deep frying thin slices of fresh tempe in a batter of secret ingredients. (See sidebar.)
Although Indonesian farmers produce soybeans most tempe manufacturers prefer to use beans from America. These have a reputation for being bigger, cleaner and with higher protein. This is the market the Australians want to enter, arguing that their field-fresh beans can be speedily supplied at a competitive price from the country next door rather than hauled from the other side of the world.
The Australian farmers said Indonesia uses more than one million tons of soybeans a year, but can produce only one tenth of its needs.
“The problem is that although soybeans are quoted at a world price, US growers are heavily subsidised by their government while we get no support,” said Mr Cannavan.
“We have no illusions about the forces we are up against, but we can deliver a premium product to the customer’s specifications. We know how to harvest quality beans and can offer new varieties.”
Mr Cannavan and his colleagues each grow less than 200 hectares of sugarcane and are principally family farmers. Their properties are in the Burdekin region, a sub-tropical zone 100 km south of Townsville, an export port on the Queensland coast close to Papua New Guinea.
“This is the largest sugarcane growing region in Australia, but sugar has suffered from some enormous fluctuations in the world price so growers need to support their incomes through other crops,” said Mr Lashmar.
“The Burdekin is a fully-irrigated and agriculturally stable area with about 300 days of sunshine every year. The year-round climate is suitable for cropping. Apart from sugar and soybeans we also grow other legumes and sunflowers, a source for cooking oil.”
Even though Australia wants to export soybeans it still needs to import 300,000 tonnes a year. These beans are mainly used as the basis for poultry, pig and dairy-cattle food where the animals are intensively farmed.
Some top quality Australian soybeans are exported to Japan.
Although Australian farmers don’t get subsidised like their American counterparts, they are getting government help. In their bid to penetrate the Indonesian market two Queensland government officials - agricultural scientist Stephen Sinclair and trade expert Rob Wardrobe who is based in Jakarta accompanied the Mr Beans.
The team wanted to bring some beans with them to show off to tempe manufacturers and decided to mail these ahead to the Australian Embassy. However the package vanished in the post so the growers have had to tour empty-handed and a little red faced.
“CHEAP AND SMELLY”
According to Australian-trained tempe expert Professor Tri Susanto of Malang’s Brawijaya University, Indonesia’s first president Sukarno once derided his country folk as “a tempe race of people – soft and smelly.”
“Unfortunately tempe has long been associated with poverty and villagers, a cheap food for people who can’t afford meat,” he said.
That’s certainly not the situation now, particularly in the West where soy products are seen as wonder foods.
Tempe is made in Japan and there are reports of American stores selling tempe burgers. There’s even a tempe ice cream. However the food is little known elsewhere outside Indonesia.
When Professor Susanto was studying fermented bean products at the University of New South Wales he made tempe in the laboratory for his Indonesian colleagues hungry for their favourite food.
The food may be healthy, but the conditions under which it’s made are far from the standards demanded by fastidious Westerners. In Malang about 500 home industries have formed a cooperative to lift quality and market their products.
A typical kampung operation involves mum, dad and the kids de-husking and boiling the beans.
The de-husking used to be done by treading with bare feet but most families now use a machine sold by the coop, which is also encouraging the use of stainless steel containers.
Squashing beans between hibiscus leaves makes the fermenting agent, or mould. This is added to the boiled beans. The mixture is then drained, put in shallow wooden trays and covered by pinholed plastic.
If the room is dark, well aired and the temperature right (Malang has the ideal climate between 25 and 30 degrees) the magic of incubation starts. Two days later the beans have turned into a cheese-like cake ready for slicing and sale.
Most people in East Java buy tempe fresh from daybreak vegetable sellers who get their supplies transported from Malang overnight. The scarcity of refrigerated transport is another impediment to industry growth.
Professor Susanto stressed that the mould was not a bacteria. While it was possible to make bad tempe by prolonging or speeding fermentation the chance of illness was “less than 0.01 per cent,” he said.
How can the first-time buyer spot “good tempe”? A quality product won’t crumble when cut and the beans bond well. If the mycelium (the creamy-white substance which covers the beans) has turned black, this is a sign of over-fermentation.
(First published in The Jakarta Post, Sat 3 December 2005)