If you think you know soy, meet tofu's tastier, meatier, more wholesome cousin.

If you think you know soy, meet tofu's tastier, meatier, more wholesome cousin.

Tempeh, an Indonesian staple made from fermented soy beans, may look a tad intimidating. But the inexpensive protein recasts itself as familiar food when topping nachos, filling a sandwich or taco, even adding heft to pasta sauces and stews.

"It's got a really cool texture — even more like steak," says Lorie Fleischman, also known as Comet, who plans to teach a Tuesday class on tempeh at Ashland Food Co-op.

"I think people don't like tofu because it's kind of spongy and weird," Comet adds.

Far from tofu in disguise, tempeh offers several benefits that bean curd can't. The fermentation process that creates tempeh breaks down the soybeans, making them more digestible. People who find tofu doesn't agree with them often can enjoy tempeh, Comet says, adding that she's been eating it since 1992, first as a strict vegan and more recently as part of a "rotation diet" that includes meat.

"Fermented soy is really the only way to go," she says, "for digestion, for enhanced nutrition, medicinal benefits."

Because the soybean's edible parts remain intact, tempeh is considered a whole food, says Mary Shaw, culinary educator for Ashland Food Co-op. By contrast, tofu is made from coagulated soy milk, produced by grinding dry soybeans, combining them with water, then heating and filtering the mixture. Tempeh trumps tofu when it comes to protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals like calcium.

"It's underrated," Shaw says.

Western versions of tempeh also may incorporate whole grains, lentils and herbs. Companies in Eugene and Hood River produce tempeh, and it's available in most local grocery stores at a price comparable to tofu, Shaw says.

Although versatile, tempeh can't shuttle between savory and sweet like tofu. It doesn't lend itself to smoothies or desserts and, almost without exception, should be cooked, Shaw says. Flavors like soy sauce, vinegar, lemongrass, lime leaf, chilies and coconut milk transform tempeh, she adds.

"It's all about creating flavor around it," she says. "It's a blank slate."

Often encountering a "disconnect" around soy-based foods, Comet, who performs product demonstrations in local stores, says the key is presenting tempeh in a way that nonvegetarians and even children will enjoy.

"Fried tempeh is so good," she says. "You just have to use food that people are already comfortable with."

Her Tuesday class aims to do just that. Part of the Co-op's "Small Bites" series, the class is just an hour and costs a third of most others sponsored by the store. Held monthly for the past year, "Small Bites" are intended to provide in-depth information on a single food item and to furnish participants with samples, Shaw says. The next in the series, "Street Snacks from Bali" is scheduled for Oct. 23.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.