The Japanese eat very healthy meals including rice, very fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, noodles and seafood including seaweed and tend to shy away from sugars, fats and animal protein. So, where do they get their proteins? From soybeans and soybean products.
The soybean or soya bean is a species of legume native to East Asia, including Japan, and is widely grown as an edible bean and for many other uses. They have been an important protein source in Asia for centuries.
They grow in many different kinds of soils and climates and provide much more protein per acre than many other crops or from cattle raised on the same amount of land. They are also a very versatile food and are one of the main ingredients in Japanese cuisine.
The list of food items in Japan made from soybeans is long and impressive, but some of the most important soy products are listed below starting with the soybeans themselves which may be prepared and eaten several different ways.
They may be boiled while still in the pod and eaten as an appetizer or snack and are called edamame, or they may be roasted and used as an ingredient in many kinds of rice crackers such as the kakinotani, some of which are in our pantry.
Soy sauce, or shoyu in Japanese, is probably the most important Japanese condiment and is used to flavor many
different Japanese dishes. Making shoyu is a very long time consuming process, usually nearly a year, as the soybeans go through a very slow and natural fermentation process.
The original process for making shoyu came from China some 13 centuries ago. That process used only soybeans and it’s still produced in Japan and is called tamari.
However, most shoyu made in Japan today is a blend of soybeans and wheat which creates a milder, smoother taste and the taste can be modified by adjusting the ratio of soybeans and wheat. While there are several name brands of shoyu on the market, for most Japanese, Kikkoman is the brand of choice. Another soybean produce is natto.
It’s made of fermented soybeans and has a sticky texture and a strong unique flavor. Many describe natto as having an acquired taste which gives it a reputation of being unpopular with foreigners as well as many Japanese. It’s much more popular in the Tokyo area called the Kanto region than around Kyoto called the Kansai region, but it’s very healthy and usually eaten as a breakfast food.
Next on the list is miso which is a fermented soybean paste and a condiment used in many Japanese dishes. Like shoyu, there are several shades of miso, from light to dark, and different flavors, from salty to somewhat sweet.
One of the most popular uses for miso is in making a soup, appropriately called miso soup. Somewhat like natto, miso soup is often part of breakfast, but it’s very good with any meal. While soybeans are used in many other food items, I’ll mention only one more food item from the versatile soybean, tofu, which is a soybean curd.
Curd from soybeans is similar to curd from milk when it coagulates when an editable acidic substance such as vinegar is added to the milk. The soybean curd is pressed into blocks, similar to the process of making cheese, and is called tofu.
It’s an ingredient used in many Japanese dishes and is used fresh, boiled or fried and it’s often an ingredient in stews and usually an ingredient in miso soup and fried tofu is sometimes to make tofu sandwiches.
Larry Jones is a member of the Stillwater Sister Cities Council.