Plant-based protein alternatives have been trending recently, but what were vegans eating before the likes of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat?
E-commerce entrepreneur Angeline Leong, 27, struggled to find a wholesome and natural plant-based protein suitable for daily consumption as a vegetarian.
Before the early 2000s, Singapore was already home to meat alternatives, which were readily available in Buddhist vegetarian shops. The problem was, most of these were made of gluten or texturised vegetable protein that did not offer quality nutrition.
Angeline started making tempeh at home after watching YouTube videos with her mother. The art of making tempeh is a form of indoor urban agriculture; technically speaking, it’s a mycelium-based fermented plant protein.
Tempeh, a traditional Javanese food ubiquitous to Indonesian and Malay cuisine, is widely revered by vegans even beyond Southeast Asia. It’s healthier and more easily digestible than tofu, and fermented whole soybeans offer more protein, fibre and vitamins. This is why tempeh has gained quite a cult following in Singapore’s health and wellness circles as well.
Modern plant-based meat substitutes like Next Meats and Impossible, are considered by some health foodies to be heavily processed. Compared to tempeh, a whole food containing prebiotics from natural fermentation, industrially processed plant-based meat might not be as healthy when eaten on a regular basis.
Learning the art of making tempeh
Shortly after graduating, Angeline travelled to Bogor, Indonesia in 2019, where she learnt the traditional way of making tempeh from the masters. She decided to bring her artisan tempeh to Singapore, and founded Angie’s Tempeh.
“We pride ourselves on the quality of our fermentation technique,” said Angeline, whose organic tempeh has won over customers who didn’t previously enjoy tempeh due to musky lower grade tempehs.
In a snack competition later that year, she met her business partner, Andrew Goh, an entrepreneur in the snack industry. With his technical expertise, he helped to scale up production for Angie’s Tempeh.
However, manufacturing large quantities of tempeh proved harder than expected. Not many people in Singapore specialised in the required skills, so the team had to figure out many processes on their own.
After many failed trials over a year, they finally managed to perfect the technique.
From the very beginning, Angie’s Tempeh has offered organic tempeh in various flavours to bring a variety of plant protein options to their customers. Interestingly, besides their soybean tempeh, they also make buckwheat, chickpea and quinoa tempeh.
Customers can also look forward to monthly specials, like this month’s soybean and adzuki bean blended tempeh, for example.
Reinventing tempeh to make vegan bakkwa
Being Chinese, Chinese New Year is an important celebration for this young founder. One of the festive snacks vegetarians like Angeline always miss out on is bak kwa, a Chinese barbecued jerky snack.
Two years in the making, Angie’s Tempeh bak kwa was a project that required constant planning and reiterations in a bid to reinvent tempeh to suit more cuisines. This plant-based version was born out of a need for a sustainable cruelty-free option for all customers who want to enjoy bak kwa during the Chinese festivities.
Angie’s Tempeh bak kwa quickly became a massive hit on social media. To make it, the team marinates tempeh in a vegan barbecue sauce made in-house. It’s then barbecued till the bits are nicely charred, bringing about the same familiar texture as meat-based bak kwa.
This labour-intensive process means that tempeh bak kwa will only be available for sale in small batches once a year. Currently, the team is working on scaling up production so more people can enjoy the plant-based festive snack.
Earlier this month, Angie’s Tempeh announced that their bak kwa won them a spot among the top ten finalists of Asia’s Great Snack challenge, organised by Enterprise Singapore.
The business will undergo an incubation phase over the next three months under mentorship by their corporate partner, Mr Bean, for product improvement and commercialisation.
Gearing up to win first place in the final stage of the competition this December, the team already has garnered over a thousand customers on their tempeh bak kwa waitlist.
Growing Angie’s Tempeh in the local manufacturing and e-commerce space
“When I started as a solo founder, there were not many businesses focused on plant-based foods and protein,” recalled Angeline, who wasn’t sure how well-received her tempeh would be in Singapore.
She organises logistics and handles administrative processes on her own, with data skills acquired from her polytechnic education in business administration. Knowledge of applying formulas and organising large amounts of data has proven very useful in running her e-commerce business.
Today, some operational aspects are changing as the business grows with more employees. Still, the business strategy remains the same at its core — to provide quality plant-based protein to people.
Her business has grown a strong following on social media to 13,000 followers. The founders kept mum on their growth in revenue and customers, but judging from their rapid expansion, Angie’s Tempeh is really picking up the tempo.
Currently, their products are stocked at nine different retailers across the island, from Little Farms to Yes Natural. Meanwhile, supermarkets sell their tempeh frozen. Customers can only get made-to-order fresh tempeh directly from the Angie’s Tempeh website.
In partnership with seven local restaurants, hungry fans can order Angie’s Tempeh at Vios at Blu Kouzina, MOAM Poke & Acai, Zodiac | 159ATAS, Potato Head Singapore, Eco-Harmony, Forage, and Chopsuey Cafe at Dempsey.
In hindsight, Angeline has noticed a shift in her client base. From vegans and vegetarians, clients now include more mainstream flexitarians and foodies.
Angie’s Tempeh has played a significant role in bringing this simple Indonesian staple to Singapore’s consumers in a range of new and innovative applications in recipes across different cuisines.
With production on a larger scale, they will be also making tempeh in some exciting new ways to bring tempeh to the mainstream audience. Tempeh fans can soon expect convenient battered nuggets and ready-to-eat flavoured tempeh.
Angie’s Tempeh plans to ramp up local production in contribution to Singapore’s “30 by 30” food security goal. Local produce like Angie’s Tempeh, reaches consumers in a significantly shorter time, resulting in less spoilage, waste, and a lower carbon footprint.
To sustain a healthy and vibrant agri-food ecosystem locally, however, consumer support is crucial.
“We aim to be the leading brand for natural plant-based protein in Asia,” said Angeline, hinting at future plans for expansion.
Featured Image Credit: Angie’s Tempeh