Soybean of Happiness
Imhoff, Dan, Warshall, Peter, Whole Earth
A 3,000-YEAR HISTORY OF OUR MOST MODERN OILSEED
Rich in tradition and yet only now being understood, the soybean is a plant of complexity and contradiction. It possesses the characteristics of both animal protein and fuel oil. It can be rendered into both a meat-like fiber and a cow-like milk. It can provide low-cost vegetable protein, yet it has become a mainstay of the livestock feed industry. It is a relatively self-sufficient crop, producing its own nitrogen nutrients and resistant to most diseases, yet is at the center of controversy about genetically modified foods. Its cultivation has the potential to reduce environmental impacts from agriculture, energy, and other sectors, yet as part of the corn/soy rotation, its cropping pattern creates more US nutrient-pollution and sediment than any of the global monocultures.
The wild relative of Glycine max was a rambling plant, growing close to the ground. Sometime around the eleventh century B.C.E., farmers in the winter wheat--growing regions of Manchurian China encouraged the recumbent wild legume to grow upright. The enthusiasm of Chinese farmers for the soybean was manifested in the names they bestowed on the crop's many varieties: Great Treasure, Brings Happiness, Yellow Jewel, Heaven's Bird. After three millennia of breeding and plant selection, today's soybean plants typically stand three feet high and three feet wide, bearing sixty to eighty pods of three beans each. Soybeans grow well even in marginal soils, and possess the soil-enriching property of leguminous plants, namely the ability to draw nitrogen from the air and transfer it to the ground through their roots.
For Asians who did not drink animal milk, the soybean quickly became indispensable. The beans, which were soaked in water to yield a white liquid, were known affectionately as "the Cow of China." But, in contrast to other staples like corn or rice, the hard oilseed needs to be intensively processed. In 206 B.C.E., in Han Dynasty China, soybeans were first fermented to make douchi, the predecessor of soy sauce and miso. (What is called douchi by the Chinese and hamanatto by the Japanese, we call "salted black beans," because the soybeans turn black during fermentation.) Soy's flour, powder, or curds were fermented to make miso (soy paste), shoyu (soy sauce), doufu (soy curd), natto (soy cheese), and tempeh (a soybean cake invented in Indonesia), as well as yuba, kinako, hamanatto, and kochu chang. Steamed green beans, roasted soy nuts, and soybean sprouts were also favored and highly nutritious.
In the last half of the first millennium C.E., the Japanese upper classes adopted many pillars of Chinese culture, from writing characters and legal norms to the Buddhist religion and doufu (known in Japan as tofu). A sixth-century monk poetically praised tofu's "dazzling white robes," accentuating the refinement with which Japanese culinary artistry endowed the soybean. Around the seventh century C.E., Japan's miso tradition emerged. Miso seems to have evolved from both chiang, a soybean paste that Buddhist monks brought from China, and jang, a similar soybean product that Korean farmers introduced to Japan's countryside. Miso remained a delicacy of the privileged classes, made almost exclusively by monks until the tenth century. Eventually, soybeans became more widely available, and the methods of fermenting soybean paste to produce miso became as diverse as the households that prepared it. By the eighteenth century, samurai families established the miso-making industry. Today, while miso is served throughout the country in households nearly every day as a broth for soup, or a dressing or sauce for grilling fish and other meats, its production has been largely relegated to giant factories. Most of Japan's soybeans are imported.
Soybeans' four "first-generation" or ancient foodstuffs--miso, soy sauce, tempeh, and tofu--are fairly refined and bear little resemblance to the just-harvested legume pods. …