Mung beans, azuki beans,
broad beans, peas; the Chinese make liberal use of all
of them, but none of these legumes compare in significance
to the one they call the Big or Great Legume, the one we
know as the soybean. In fact the soybean is so central
to the Chinese food system that it is often simply referred
to as ‘The
Legume,’ its full name often only deemed necessary
when distinguishing it from other types. So when Chinese
buy tofu they need only ask for doufu. Rotten Legume, LIkewise
soy milk is rendered dou jiang, Legume Paste.
The soybean differs
from its legume cousins in its lower level of carbohydrate,
but much higher tallies of protein and oil. After rice
and wheat, the great modern-day staples of China, the soybean
sits firmly on the third rung on the Chinese food hierarchy.
From a dietary point of view soy food offers a ton of protein
and calcium to a population that gets precious little of
either from meat or dairy products. Though it is not usually
consumed in large quantities, except by vegetarians, soy
in one form or another is eaten daily by just about everybody.
Soy sauce alone, with its role as the key food flavouring,
would be enough to guarantee that much. Let’s have
a look at how the soybean became soy food.
Native to north-east China (Manchuria), the soybean (Glycine
max) was cultivated some 3,000 years ago, The plant’s
wild precursor was a recumbent vine, G. max var.
ussuriensis. During the early centuries of domestication,
the soybean was nothing like as important in the
Chinese diet as it is today. In fact it may well
have been far more useful as a fertiliser than as
a food - ploughed back into the soil to enriching
it for other crops such as wheat or millet. The soy
plant is fortunate to be a member of a family of
plants that has the ability to draw nitrogen from
the air impart it into the soil through its roots
thus enriching poor soils. Soybean plants may also
have been rotated with other crops, for this same
But while those ancient farmers had discovered a new food
source, only their descendants, almost 1,000 years in the
future would begin to fully understand the nutritional value
of the soybean. The long history of domestication resulted
in a great variety of upright hardy soy plants that do well
in a wide range of soil and weather conditions.
The main types of soybeans are categorised by seed colour:
green, black and by far the most common, yellow, the variety
that inspired the bean’s other name, Yellow Legume,
Like grain such as wheat or barley, mature soybeans are normally
harvested dry and hard on the plant. During the Zhou Dynasty
(1050 - 256 BC), soybeans were designated one of the Five
Sacred Grains (the others being wheat, barley, rice and millet).
Then the soybean was known as shu, and boiled beans were eaten
whole. The leaves of the plant were also eaten. But whole
soybeans then as now were hardly considered a delicacy. At
that time millet was the preferred grain, followed by rice,
wheat, and soybeans at a less than mouth-watering fourth place.
The migration of the soybean from north east China was gradual.
By the first century A.D. it had spread to central and south
China, and Korea. Sometime after this date and before the
arrival of the Europeans in the Sixteen Century, soybeans
were sown in Japan and South East Asia. Today north east China
is still the major soy belt of China
When it comes to the art of survival, the Chinese seem to
have always been ruthlessly efficient exploiters of the environment.
The regimen with the soybean was no exception. The bean turned
out to be a very cheap source of protein, yielding much more
by acreage than milk, eggs or meat, or other common crops.
At around 37 percent by weight, the pea-size soybean is loaded
with protein. That figure means the soybean thrashes any other
plant source, and even meat at 15 - 20 percent, And the protein
that soybeans offer is top quality. The amino acid balance
is almost as good as in meat. The soybean still plays a tremendous
role in supporting a large population on limited arable land.
But this has not always been the case. All this wonderful
nutrition was hard won, for once they have initially tamed
the soybean plant, it would take the Chinese another 1,000
years to fully unlock the nutritional potential of their humble
The Whole Bean Story: Why Soybeans
are Not Eaten Like Other Beans
It took so long because there are a couple of major problems
with soybeans; the first, as already mentioned, a matter of
taste, the second, one of nutrition. Even after lengthy boiling,
soybeans remain quite tough and beany, and taste a little
bitter. More importantly, due to a digestive enzyme called
trypsin which interferes with protein that digestion, whole
soybeans are largely indigestible. They do however contain
some useful vitamins and minerals that are digestible, but
most of the protein they contain just passes through the system
with barely a blimp on the nutritional radar screen. It is
this fact which explains why unlike other beans and peas,
soybeans are seldom eaten whole today. The generations that
followed the Zhou Dynasty, learned that to more fully exploit
the protein, the soybean needed to be processed further.
Making soy milk was one of the early methods. Soy milk is
nothing more than a milky liquid that results from boiling
and mashing whole beans, so we can assume that it was
not long before soy milk was ‘invented.’ Initially
it may have been eaten as bean meal soup. Even today in
China soy milk remains a drink that is processed and consumed
in simple ways, though it is often sweetened and occasionally
In soy milk processing, the Chinese
were perhaps inspired by their nomadic, animal herding,
milk guzzling northern neighbours, the Mongols. Some scholars
recognise this possibility. Soy milk after all looks like,
(but certainly does not taste like) dairy milk. And like
that drawn from the cow’s udder,
it is mainly consumed by the Chinese for breakfast.
Traditionally the Chinese have never fed soy milk to infants.
Babies were breast fed, by a wet nurse if necessary. But as
in many countries, breast feeding rates have dropped greatly
over recent years. Many mothers have the mistaken belief that
milk formulas are more nutritious than breast milk, If you
visit any supermarket in China today you will find an aisle
stacked full of dairy-based powdered formulas, just as in
any western supermarket.
Soy Milk Skim
Soy milk soon gave a natural rise to dou pi, tofu skin, the
dried skim from boiled soy milk. Although it is very like
dried tofu, technically speaking it is not the same. Soy milk
skim is used in similar ways to dried tofu and is easily mistaken
Salty Black Beans
Fermentation improves the digestibility of soy protein. Salty
black beans, the first known fermented soybean product, were
a not only an early nutritional breakthrough, but one for
the taste buds too. It occurred, accidentally or otherwise
sometime during the late Zhou Dynasty or the Han Dynasty (206
BC - 220 AD) that followed. The salty black beans (the black
colour is the result of the process), used today in Chinese
cooking differ little from those early fermentation experiments.
What is perhaps most significant is that black beans were
the forerunner of what is essentially their liquified equivalent,
Fermented soy in sauce form proved to be much more versatile
than salty black beans.
Nearly all soy products include the
word dou in their name. But you won’t find that character on any bottle of soy
sauce. Instead what you find on the label are the characters
Jiang you. This translates as sauce oil. This is a little
odd as most other Chinese sauces are referred to as jiang,
as in la jiao jiang - chilli sauce, and anyone who ever fumbled
with a pair of chopsticks knows that soy sauce is not oily
(though there are some very oily soy pastes available). So
why is soy sauce called sauce oil? First let’s talk
about the first word jiang. It is nearly certain soybeans
were neither the first or the only vegetable or meat to be
fermented into a sauce. All fermented sauces in ancient times
were collectively called jiang, regardless of the what they
were made from. Now to the second word, you. You usually
means oil. But probably what the early sauce makers meant
by you was extract - a sauce extracted from the beans.
No one knows exactly when soy sauce
was first formulated. What we do know is that during the
Song Dynasty (960 -1279) the character jiang came to refer
strictly to one type of sauce only, soy. By the late southern
Song, a phrase was coined that became famous: “The things that people cannot do
without everyday are firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce,
vinegar, and tea.” Soy sauce by then had already become
one of the great flavours of China.
Made in the traditional way soy sauce as we are familiar
with it today, is fermented naturally from soybeans, wheat
flour, salt and water, a quite sophisticated and time consuming
process, that might take anywhere from six months to two years.
Also worth noting is that because of its high salt content
the use of soy sauce makes the use of salt redundant. For
this reason plain salt has drastically less importance in
Chinese cuisine than it does in a great many other cuisines.
Soy sauce is also commonly used as a preservative. Its nutritional
value should not be dismissed either as it is a good daily
source of Riboflavin, Vitamin B6, Magnesium and Copper, and
is packed with Protein, Niacin, Iron, Phosphorus and Manganese.
The invention of soy sauce changed the taste of Chinese food
forever. It remains the quintessential Chinese seasoning.
Soybeans contain vitamins and minerals but little vitamin
C. But sprout some beans in a warm corner of your kitchen,
something done incredibly quickly (1-1/2 to 2-1/2 days) and easily, and
they begin sprouting vitamin C in decent doses. A useful thing to know
at anytime but particularly during northern China’s bitter winters,
when even today fresh vegetables and fruit can be hard to come by. How
long the Chinese have been eating bean sprouts is difficult to say,
but as sprouting occurs in nature without human intervention,
the process would have been noticed early on. Basically it is through overseas
Chinese restaurants that sprouts have become familiar in the western world.
But the Chinese, it should be noted, do not eat sprouts raw. Cooking sprouts
releases a protein not available in the raw state. Cooking increases
the nutrient value of sprouts , besides making them more
While soybeans are grown primarily for their protein, they
are a important source of edible oil too. They are one of
the major oilseeds, containing as they do about 18% fat, a
much more than other legumes (chick peas for example, lag
way behind with 5%). The sheer volume of this cholesterol-free
oil coupled with its mild flavour help explain why soy oil
is the most popular cooking oil in the world today. In China
though it runs second to rapeseed oil, but ahead of peanut
oil in third place.
As we know, Chinese do not consume the soybean whole. Here
we have to qualify that statement - unless it is green. Edamame
(a Japanese term) soybeans are mature but still green beans
picked before they dry on the plant. In this form the three
beans the pods hold are partially digestible. Certain varieties
of soybean are considered more suitable for this. They are
used as a vegetable in stir-fried and braised dishes or eaten
directly from their hairy pods as a snack, hence the name
Mao Dou or Hairy Bean. A spicy version cooked in black pepper,
garlic and star anise is popular in Taiwan tea shops.
was tofu that finally cemented the soybean’s
role in Chinese cuisine. If rice and wheat are the
carbohydrate canons, tofu put loads of previously
unavailable cheap protein on the table.
Legend has it that tofu was discovered
by Liu An (179-122 BC), the Prince of Huainan, grandson
of the founder of the Western Han Dynasty, Liu Bang.
A key element of Taoism of the time was alchemy, and Liu
An was a a practitioner of this art, the forerunner of modern
chemistry. Liu An, the story goes created tofu in search for
immortality or at least longevity. Scholars think the very
first tofu was made by adding salt to a batch of soy milk.
When curds formed, a new solid food was born. Whether or not
Liu An was really the first 'curdler,' Huainan in central
Anhui Province manages to attract plenty of people to the
tofu festival it holds every September 15 largely on the basis
of the story.
Until fairly recently the earliest evidence of tofu was from
the Tenth Century Sung Dynasty when tofu first receives a
substantial mention in literature. If you have been keeping
track of of our timeline, that would mean that it took the
Chinese 2,000 years to learn how to make tofu. Somehow this
never seemed to ring true. As is often the case in history,
one truth is superseded by another. Archaeological evidence
from a 1980 dig in Dahuting, Henan Province pushes the existence
of tofu back at least 750 years. The excavated Han Dynasty
(A.D. 25-220) tomb revealed a stone slab with a mural featuring
a kitchen scene which illustrates the making of soy milk and
Tofu has more than protein to offer. Soy milk though very
healthy contains only a fairly miniscule amount of calcium,
but when *Gypsum (Hydrated Calcium Sulphate), a harmless mineral
long used in the making of plaster, is added as a coagulating
agent, soy milk is transformed into calcium-rich tofu. This
is a vital boost for the vast majority of Chinese who have
rarely, if ever had dairy foods in their diet.
The role of tofu in the Chinese diet
has been likened to that of meat and milk in other cultures.
This analogy is often pushed too far by the soy industry
and various health 'gurus,' but is far from completely
ridiculous. Aside from the nutritional package it delivers,
the brilliance of tofu lies in its versatility as it can
be prepared in a multitude of ways and blends well with
many other foods. Though bland in its basic form, any half-decent
Chinese cook knows how to make any number of delicious
dishes with this silky white curd. And unlike the fermented
seasonings and sprouts that had come before it (the unappetising
whole beans notwithstanding), with tofu, here was an economical
food of substance, one that could fill the gut. It was
also a food Buddhists could love and they in fact were
largely responsible for its spread to the far flung borders
of China and beyond.
Two thousand years ago when two Buddhists missionaries named
Kasyapa and Dharmaraksha arrived from India after a long journey
on the Silk Road, they brought with them a belief in the virtuousness
of the meatless diet. Their teachings eventually found an
a receptive audience - meat was a luxury the Chinese peasant
could rarely indulge in, and for some the gap between a diet
of little meat, and of no meat was not a wide one.
The great Chinese art of meat substitution was born. Meat
analogues can be amazingly meat-like. And mock meat could
be eaten guilt-free, and it was much cheaper than the stuff
hacked from the carcasses of animals, which meant that you
could eat more of it more often. In time tofu and soy protein
played a central role in the making of meat substitutes. Whether
made of tofu, soy protein, wheat gluten or mushrooms, mock
meat remains a major feature at vegetarian restaurants and
temple kitchens throughout China and Taiwan.
Soy to the World
Although its basic nutritional talents were known, early attempts
to get Americans and Europeans eating soy largely failed,
though soy sauce found a market as a general seasoning after
being imported to Europe by Dutch traders in the 17th Century.
The Americans, however had no such trouble getting cattle,
pigs and chickens to gobble up soy meal, thus creating a huge
soy stock feed industry. Many industrial uses for soy were
also found throughout the 20th Century.
Apart from perhaps buying the odd bottle of soy oil, it was
in Chinatown or at the local Chinese restaurant where most
Westerners first encountered soy food - soy sauce, tofu and
bean sprouts. But soy food has been in the ascendancy since
the 1970s when it became the darling of vegetarians after
belated recognition as a miracle health food. Since then soy
has worked its way into thousands of food products, often
for reasons of economy rather than health, while soy protein
has become the basis for a whole range of western meat product
substitutes, many sophisticated, some rather bizarre.
In the 1950s America overtook China in soybean production.
These days China imports large quantities of soybeans and
its bi-products from America, The Chinese, not surprisingly,
have yet to develop a taste for the soy burger.
agents can and have been used. Salt was perhaps the earliest.
China consumes far more pork than any other country, and not surprisingly has the largest pig population in the world. Pork so dominates the meat market that if a dish name includes the word meat, you can be fairly certain that pork is what is meant … more