The Difference Between Tempeh vs. Tofu

Learn about the differences and similarities between tempeh and tofu.

There is a legion of meat substitutes in the annals of vegan/vegetarian history, but few have earned the place of eminent respect held by the two “Ts:” tofu and tempeh. 

Slices Of Tempe On The Wooden Table

But perhaps their legendary status is what makes them so unknown, so mysterious. It’s why so many people, from tepid tempeh triers to voracious vegetarians, don’t know the difference between them.

But if you’re wondering what tempeh and tofu are, what sets them apart from one another, or why it’s so easy to confuse them, then wonder no longer. We’ll break down everything you need to know about tofu and tempeh. 

It’ll take an interdisciplinary look at everything from history to chemistry to study these culinary colossi, but we’re not afraid. So read on to learn the differences between tempeh and tofu.

What Is Tempeh?

Tempeh is the first stop on our scholarly venture into the depths of soy proteins. 

Native to the Indonesian island of Java, people have consumed tempeh since at least the mid-nineteenth century, but it spread to Europe and the United States in the 1940s.

Since its birth, tempeh has been a staple food in traditional Indonesian cuisine, being a healthy source of protein, fiber, and vitamins.

Why, you ask? Tempeh is essentially a dense cake made of whole fermented soybeans.

Uncooked tempeh tends to have an earthy and slightly bitter flavor, but when cooked it takes on a flavor akin to mushrooms and nuts.

What Is Tofu? 

You probably don’t need us to tell you that tofu is the star of the soy protein world, if not the entire vegan protein game. 

Like tempeh, you make tofu from soybeans.

However, it derives from a practice said to be nearly 2000 years old: soy milk (which you make by soaking soybeans and grinding them with water) is allowed to coagulate, and then pressed into blocks.

In terms of taste, tofu has a spongy texture and a subtle flavor. This flavor neutrality makes tofu well-suited to use in many recipes since it tends to absorb the flavors of the sauces and oils in which you cook it. 

How Are Tempeh and Tofu Different? 

Although tempeh and tofu are both soy products, they are produced differently and are used in different cuisines.

Tempeh, for its part, derives its nutty flavor from the whole fermented soybeans that compose it. Tofu is the coagulated curd of soy milk and has a more neutral flavor.

On top of this chemical difference, tofu and tempeh are common in different cuisines.

While tempeh is native to the Indonesian island of Java and is consequently used in many Javanese recipes, tofu comes from China and is common in Chinese cuisine and Japanese cuisine.

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are any lingering questions you might have about the differences between tempeh and tofu.

Which is healthier, tempeh or tofu?

If you’re looking to decide between tempeh and tofu on a dietary basis, you’re in a strong position either way.

Tempeh and tofu are both incredibly healthy, and where one is lacking, the other provides.

Tempeh, for its part, is very rich in protein and dietary fiber, as well as nutrients like iron and potassium.

Depending on the recipe, tofu can also be rich in protein, but rarely as much as tempeh.

Tofu, on the other hand, is a low-calorie food that is extremely rich in calcium, making it a solid choice if you want to improve your bone health.

Does tempeh taste better than tofu?

You might not be surprised to learn that this question has generated fierce discourse in the vegan protein community.

Whether tempeh is better than tofu is entirely a matter of opinion and personal taste.

For some, the neutral flavor profile of tofu makes it a more reliable ingredient, and its spongy texture makes it a pleasant alternative to meat.

Tempeh is also delicious, but its core advantage is that it holds its shape very well.

While tofu tends to crumble under heat and excess pressure, tempeh retains structural integrity in most circumstances, so it can be an excellent ingredient in a vegan hamburger or protein sandwich.

Is tofu or tempeh easier to digest?

If you have a sensitive digestive system or other sensitivities, it may be important for you to maximize the digestibility of your soy protein. In that case, tempeh is the choice for you.

Because it is fermented, tempeh is rich in probiotics, which collaborate with the digestive system to absorb nutrients.

While tofu isn’t necessarily bad for your gut, the probiotics in tempeh make it the better choice.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, the battle for soy domination has reached a standstill in the modern age, with tofu and tempeh becoming respected allies in vegan cookbooks and supermarket aisles everywhere.

While you might have particular reasons for choosing the whole-bean-fermented tempeh or the soymilk-coagulated tofu, you can’t go wrong with either one.

Check out other protein-filled meat alternatives if you’re practicing a vegan or vegetarian diet!

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Written by Erin Elizabeth

Erin lives in East Passyunk and enjoys checking out the local restaurants in South Philly and beyond. Her favorite restaurants are those with spicy food and outdoor seating so that she can bring along her dog, Miss Piggy.