March 4, 2010

Dresden farmers turn talents to plant-based protein

— Autumn sunlight filters softly through the kitchen windows as Andy Berhanu pours a fungal culture known as tempeh starter into a stainless-steel bowl of cooked soybeans. His wife, Jaime Berhanu, gently stirs the culture into the beans.

click image to enlarge

Avery Yale Kamila/Staff Writer; Jaime Berhanu; who owns Lalibela Farm with her husband; Andy; shows off the first Maine-made tempeh. The initial batch sold out at last Saturday's Portland Farmers Market.

click image to enlarge

Avery Yale Kamila/Staff Writer; Lalibela Farm Tempeh is made from locally-grown organic soybeans and sells for $3.50 at the Portland Farmers Market. It will soon be available in stores.

Additional Photos Below

Next, the pair, who own Lalibela Farm in Dresden, work together to scoop the mixture into specially perforated plastic bags. Jaime uses a rolling pin to flatten each bag.

The bags will later be placed in a gently heated baking rack, where they'll ferment for a day before the starter turns each bag of loose beans into a solid cake of tempeh.

The day I joined the Berhanus in the kitchen at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Wiscasset, they were creating their first batch of commercially available tempeh bound for this past weekend's farmers market in Deering Oaks. When I caught up with Jaime again on Saturday at the market, she had just two packages of tempeh left, and it was only 10 a.m.

Clearly, the pair has tapped into a niche waiting to be filled.

Until now, Mainers had no source for locally made tempeh. The Lalibela Farm Tempeh joins Heiwa Tofu, made in Lincolnville, as the second Maine-made, plant-based protein source.

''It's really exciting for us,'' said Jonah Fertig, co-founder and food coordinator of the Local Sprouts Cooperative, a community-supported kitchen and catering company based in Portland that strives to use as much local food as possible.

''Six months ago, when we were making vegan food, we had to buy tofu, tempeh and oil from away,'' Fertig said. ''Now we're using local oil and Heiwa Tofu. It's really great. We're excited to start using the Maine tempeh as well.''

Tempeh is often a staple of vegetarian and whole-foods diets, and is a mainstay of Indonesian cuisine. The Lalibela Farm Tempeh comes in 8-ounce packages and sells for $3.50. Look for it this coming Saturday at the Portland Farmers Market.

That will be the last day of the season for Lalibela Farm at the market, but Jaime and Andy are talking with a number of retailers, and the tempeh should be available in natural food shops soon.

The organic soybeans used in the tempeh come from Bull Ridge Farm in Albion, where farmer Henry Perkins also grows organic sunflowers and creates sunflower oil.

''We grow almost all of our own food, except our protein source,'' said Andy, 34. ''For us, we try to buy as locally as possible.''

The Berhanus follow a vegan diet, and their desire to eat locally grown foods is what prompted them to explore the culturing of tempeh. Once they'd created a few successful batches, they decided to move into commercial production.

Jaime, 32, said they were thinking of the ''vegetarian community here in Maine, and how many people depend on a processed form of protein.''

These foods she's referring to include the many fake meat products which contain a long list of ingredients and result from complicated processing techniques. In contrast, tempeh is close to the whole form of soybeans, with only the bean's skins removed during production.

Fans of mushrooms point to tempeh's fungal component, created by the Rhizopus oligosporus spores in the tempeh starter, as the reason it's nutritionally complex and the soy protein is more digestible than in cooked beans. Eventually, Jaime and Andy plan to create other varieties, such as a multi-grain tempeh and a soy-free tempeh.

Wanting to give someone else a chance to try locally made tempeh from this first batch, I bought only one of the remaining packages at Saturday's market. When I got home, I followed Jaime's advice for the creation of a quick and tasty sandwich.

I sliced the block of tempeh into four pieces and marinated them for about two hours in a mixture of tamari, maple syrup, apple cider vinegar, toasted sesame oil, smoked sea salt, liquid smoke and red pepper flakes. Then I fried each tempeh slice on a skillet until it was golden brown.

Next, I placed two tempeh slices on a toasted bagel (I use the locally made Spelt Right Bagels) and topped them with sauteed onions, honey mustard and lettuce. The sandwich had an excellent texture and a hearty and rich flavor.

My only regret: That I didn't buy both of the remaining packages when I had the chance.

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

Avery Yale Kamila/Staff Writer; Jaime Berhanu; who owns Lalibela Farm with her husband; Andy; shows off the first Maine-made tempeh. The initial batch sold out at last Saturday's Portland Farmers Market.

click image to enlarge

Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)