Tempe is Indonesia’s most popular food. It is cheap and easy to get. In the hands of Wida Winarno, tempe’s meaning transcends superfood. Her love for fermentation process and tempe turned out to not only bring pleasure to herself, but also to many others. Then, she established Indonesian Tempe Movement to introduce and increase awareness for tempe as a sustainable and high-nutrient food, the identity of Indonesia, and its potential for business. NOW! Jakarta speaks with Wida Winarno in an exclusive interview to gain a deep understanding of tempe in this aspect.
With an interesting educational background in biotechnology, how do you personally talk about tempe to other people?
For me, talking about food goes beyond the common trend. I see food from four sides: whether it is delicious or not; is it garnish or presentation focused; its nutritional values; and its safety. Nutrition and food safety are covered by science. And talking about tempe, most people just see it as an affordable food available everywhere. But for me it’s like an awesome chemical reaction, like those found in massive bio reactors, but on food. The forming process is very complex. Tempe is a healthy food because the process itself is a biological selection—if there’s artificial or chemical content inside, the process will fail.
Because of my educational background, I’m keen on promoting how Indonesia should be proud to have tempe as its gastronomic identity. It’s a simple, plant-based food with high protein content, and it can easily replace meat-based food. And in terms of my contribution to get people to love tempe more, I’ve held multiple workshops in various circles, such as in correctional facilities, narcotics rehabilitation centres, villages and urban residents in general.
Could you describe what these workshops look like?
Our workshop tries to touch all of the senses: eyes to focus on the presentation, ears to listen to the speaker, hands to practice, and heart to feel the creation. Making tempe channels your energy because you have to closely maintain that tempe in the next two days to reach perfection, and you can feel the transformation of the beans as the hair becomes finer, softer, warmer and more fragrant.
I believe that tempe can be the key to a sustainable society. Tempe is so simple to make that you don’t need any special skills. When I held the workshop in correctional facilities, I realized that tempe transcends food. It gave hope and dignity. For example, Cipinang penitentiary has tempe-making in collaboration with Indonesian Tempe Movement as part of the inmates’ extracurricular activity, and soybeans are now planted in the open land. Some inmates even openly shared that they intent to go into the tempe-making business after serving their sentence. And this is just one tempe success story in a correctional facility.
You established the organization after bringing together tempe researchers, experts and activists in a conference. Could you please tell us about that?
Making tempe is not uncommon in the world of biotechnology. We organized the International Conference on Tempe in Yogyakarta back in February 2015, which was mostly attended by biotechnicians from Indonesia and other countries such as Japan, Korea, Poland, Thailand and the US.
Following the conference, I published “Tempe”, which is a book that highlights a collection of interesting tempe facts based on research. Me and my son then got the idea to start a movement based on tempe according to the fascinating facts and features that we’ve discovered.
Indonesian Tempe Movement is a non-profit international organization, and we have an extension of the organization in the USA. It’s not a formal or expansive organization with a massive campaign. The movement is only meant to provide a platform for enthusiasts to collectively create tempe in the interest of advancing its potential.
For example, we support youth running tempe chips business. I, too, like to experiment and creating new products from tempe, such as noodle, beauty mask, as well as trying other grains besides soybeans to create tempe. My son, on the other hand, took on the communications side for the organisation because he really enjoys telling the story of tempe.
You’re always excited to introduce green tempe, what is it exactly about and how do you educate tempe producers about it?
Journalists often ask me to recommend tempe production sites to visit, but I could never give any because all of them are not presentable. Most producers are just following the ways of their fathers, who were following their fathers in turn, and so while the traditional tempe-making techniques are preserved, hygiene is simply never in the equation. So I taught them to create a healthy environment and use bamboo equipment to promote sustainability and hygiene.
In general, tempe production requires lot of water and fuel to soak and steam soybeans, so it’s necessary to come up with an environmentally friendly way to produce tempe. This is when I came up with palape, a solution of acid-forming bacteria to soak and soften the soybeans so that the skin of the beans can be easily peeled. Clean water and fuel is clearly important, and our solution helps with the sustainability of these resources.
How did you come up with the idea?
There is an abundance of fruit in Indonesia. Unfortunately, poor harvesting system has led to a massive waste of good fruits. I was initially researching bananas in Bogor, fermenting them to create a solution to replace formaldehyde commonly used to make tofu. Our team synthesized a solution to acidify tempe from the research. And to make palape with PH 3,9 we can use any kind of fruit—not only bananas—that have nearly gone bad, such as papaya or passion fruit.
How did you become interested in fermentation?
I was very sick and bedridden for months. I had to detox with kombucha. Because it was difficult to find, I made my own recipe similar to kombucha and I found myself fresher and fitter thanks to my own recipe. I was happy that I can create a fermented product that I can use for myself. From there I started fermenting anything because fermented products are good for our health. Fermented products contain probiotic bacterias, which helps our digestive system. Moreover, fermenting requires humidity, which is perfect because Indonesia is very humid. That’s why we have various fermented-food such as tempe, tauco, tempoyak, dadih, tape and many more. The wide variety of fermented food products should make Indonesians healthy. This begs the question as to why our health profile is still poor?