Haaretz May 28, 2021
Written by Ronit Vered
Photos: Yael Ilan


Inside a small incubator in Jerusalem grows one of the most intriguing foods of today!

Natanel Rubin immigrated to Israel from England, served as a lone soldier and was disappointed with the military food.  His search for a vegan protein source made him one of the only experts in the country to produce fresh Tempeh - a food based on fermented soybeans.

The incubator built by Natanel Rubin with his own hands in Jerusalem was designed to simulate the natural conditions prevailing on the Indonesian island of Java; a constant temperature of 31 degrees and 80% humidity.  The hot and steamy weather is a necessary condition for the development of risotto oligosporus, a mold fungus, in which soybeans or other legumes and grains are contaminated to form tempeh, an ancient fermented food originating in the tropical archipelago.  But during the 48 hours that the fungal spores ferment the beans, the conditions must be constantly regulated.  "It's a living food," says the 22-year-old young entrepreneur, who is endowed with a captivating combination of innocent sincerity and deep seriousness.  "Once the fungus begins to develop it emits heat, so a constant balance of optimal conditions must be maintained."

In Indonesia, where a small, artisanal Tempeh production tradition is still maintained for family and community needs (alongside commercial and large-scale industrial production), production workers are in charge of temperature regulation l, opening windows and doors to balance heat and humidity.

In the air of the peaks of Jerusalem, and in a modern and computerized age, control is conducted digitally.  

"At first I set a clock to two am to check the temperature in the first incubator I created. But over time, and with the transition to commercial scale production, I built a digital control system, and today I can sit in class at university and over the phone to control incubator conditions."  

The obsession with Tempeh- began for Natanel, and to his credit, he ran with it. There is nothing like crazy people talking about adapting reality to their needs instead of succumbing to it - it really began during the military service of Rubin, a native of Jerusalem who grew up in London.  "I returned to Israel alone, studied at a yeshiva in the Old City and decided to enlist.  "I had a hard time in the army. You are thrown at once to deal only with your thoughts - no phone, no home and nothing to distract you and combat training was one of the most difficult things that happened during my service. I found tools that allowed me to deal with the anxiety and depression that I did not know until then. "

Through practicing yoga and reading self awareness books, the young man, who served as a lone combat soldier, came to the subject of the vegetarian and vegan diet.  "I grew up in a family that eaten some meat. I started reading studies that talked about how a plant-based diet affects the body and mind, and gradually how fermented foods are better digested. The fermentation process allows the breakdown of complex sugars found in most processed foods we consume and make digestion difficult."  .

The first step was to give up the usual diet in the military dining room, and in the words of the young man with the prominent accent: "I stopped eating white bread, sugar, delicacies and chocolate in time. It was hard. I would arrive at the base with a backpack full of sourdough bread, natural protein powder and avocado.  "For training and nutrition, but it worked. The healthier I ate, the stronger I felt on a mental level."

After his release from the army, Rubin returned to London, before he headed out for his world travel.  "I did yoga and meditation and ate well in vegan restaurants. I went to India, as all Israelis do after the army, and spent a month in the ashram. The trauma from the service had not yet passed, and followered me. My stay in India was especially therapeutic and interesting for me, because I am a believer - pray three times a day, keep  Shabbat and eat kosher food - it was interesting for me to witness the religious practice of another culture. "

Rubin, whose family also relocated to Jerusalem, began his studies at the Bezalel Department of Visual Communication this year.  "My travels were cut short whenr I returned to Israel, the corona crisis broke out, I could not leave here, and my studies had not yet begun. Since my military service I continue with intense physical activity, so I have to eat a lot of protein, I looked like many others for a daily source of plant protein.  And tofu and soy milk both based on soy, are foods in which the legumes and seeds undergo a relatively intensive processing process and both made me feel heavy and bloated."

Tempeh- whole, cooked and fermented soybeans - is today considered by many to be an easier-to-digest food than many components of the modern industrial diet.  The original raw material, a by-product of the tofu industry discovered in Indonesia, has in recent years become a raw material in question in the West as well.  It tastes neutral, but cooking in different techniques makes the solid texture a comfortable substrate for absorbing different flavors.  In Israel, it is still difficult to obtain Tempeh in a wide distribution.  "I read a lot about Tempeh, but the product is still almost non-existent in health stores in Israel, so I decided to produce it myself. Now, Rubin is likely the only seller of Fresh Organic Artisan Tempeh in the country. At first, although I thought it was a relatively simple process, I completely failed.  But slowly and through trial and error, I improved."

The gradual increase in production - first to my immediate circle and from there to commercial production - also occurred with the help of people who went through a similar process overseas.  "I contacted a 23-year-old entrepreneur from Singapore who became the owner of a successful Tempeh artisan factory. I asked her to connect me with her master in Indonesia, and I did a few weeks of zooming course with the sound of motorcycles and monkeys and coconut trees in the background."

The organic soybeans, which originate in Canada, undergo a process that includes soaking, cooking with water and apple cider vinegar, drying in a centrifuge, splitting, gluing in the fungal spores that originate in Belgium ( For 48 hours.  The final product - small loaves shaped like white mold cheeses, the layout of which rediscovers the unique texture of the soybeans bound with the help of the mushroom - Rubin sells directly to consumers in the central region, mainly through WhatsApp.  Future plans include Tempeh production from additional raw materials, with an emphasis on local crops.  "I'm doing advanced experiments with peas, even though I still haven't been able to come up with a good enough product for my taste. The real dream is a tempeh of chickpeas, or a combination of action with local soy growers who want to focus on the health market. But right now there are none."

No one, including Rubin, claims that this is the most delicious raw material in the world.  But in an age where it is worth re-examining the consumption of animal protein, whether for reasons of animal protection or preservation of the environment, the product it provides is ever worthy of recognition.