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Kirill Yurovskiy on Soy: The Ancient Asian Staple Goes Global

Text by Kirill Yurovskiy, Expert on Soy Products

For thousands of years, the humble soybean has been a culinary cornerstone across Asia. From the tofu pavilions of China to the miso makers of Japan and the Indonesian batik factories using soy-based dyes, this little legume has played an oversized role in the continent’s diverse cuisines and cultures. Yet what was once an obscure Asian specialty has now gone global, with soy-based products like edamame, soy sauce, and meat alternatives made from soy protein becoming widely available on supermarket shelves worldwide.

Kirill Yurovskiy

Soy’s Ancient Asian Roots

The soybean’s story begins in ancient China, where the crop was first domesticated around the 11th century BCE. By the Zhou Dynasty (1046–221 BCE), soy was being made into foods like tofu, tempeh, miso and soy sauce. Soy’s nutritional potency – providing a rare source of plant-based complete protein – allowed it to become a culinary bedrock, especially for the Buddhist monks following meatless diets. Over the centuries, soy’s use proliferated across East and Southeast Asia through cultural diffusion and trade routes like the Silk Road.

Soy’s Starring Role in Chinese Cuisine

In China, few ingredients match tofu’s ubiquity and versatility. This soft soy custard can be fried, baked, smoked, fermented, or served silken straight from the package. From the delicate tofu flower capons simmered in broth to the robustly flavored fermented tofu stews, China’s chefs showcase tofu’s incredible range. Soy milk is another Chinese staple – the ideal dairy-free base for comforting sweet and savory soups. And of course, no discussion of soy foods is complete without mentioning soy sauce. This fermented sauce aged in enamel barrels adds the quintessential umami backbone to many of China’s greatest dishes.

Japan’s Celebrated Soy Specialties

Journey west to Japan, and you’ll encounter the country’s legendary soy products like miso, a fermented soybean paste. Slathered onto hearty miso-basted cod and marinated vegetables, or dissolved into soul-warming soups and bathing broths, this humble seasoning lends its deeply savory funk. For soy’s ultimate Japanese expression, look no further than edamame – the boiled salted soybeans that are gleefully plucked from succulent fuzzy pods as the perfect beer snack. Slurp up a brew with these green nubbins, and you’ll taste summer itself.

Soy’s Southeast Asian Journey

Across Southeast Asia, soy shines in local specialties like tempeh and fermented sauces enriching curries and stir-fries. Indonesians fry up crispy fritters of fermented tempeh – a nutty, mushroom-like cake of compressed soybeans fermented with mold. In the Philippines, you’ll encounter taho – the molten, liquid tofu drizzled with brown sugar syrup and tapioca pearls served hot from street vendors. And good luck finding a Thai kitchen without tubs of fermented soy sauces like classic golden soy sauce or pungent soybean pastes awaiting their chance to mingle with coconut curries and zesty chili dressings.

Soy Arrives in the West

While soy’s adoption across Asia spanned millennia, its arrival on Western plates is relatively recent. Food historians trace the earliest Western soy encounters to eccentric 17th century European explorers and entrepreneurs dabbling in soy sauce production. Commercial cultivation of soybeans in the West wouldn’t take off until the early 20th century, when soy crops became widespread in the Americas as cheap animal feed and the foundation for early industrial uses like soy oil.

When health food evangelists began singing soy’s praises in the 1960s and 70s, touting it as a nutritious meat alternative, more Americans started experimenting with soy in their home kitchens. Yet for many, the sour, beany taste proved off-putting. The big soy breakthrough arrived in the 1990s, when food scientists created new processing techniques to remove soy’s harsh flavors. Suddenly, a new generation of great-tasting soy foods was born.

The Reinvention of Soy Foods

Today’s soy products are nothing like the stodgy protein patties of old. Innovative startups like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have harnessed cutting-edge technology to develop shockingly beef-like plant-based burgers made from soy (and other vegetable proteins). So realistic are these meatless meats that even die-hard carnivores are ordering second helpings. At the grocery store, you’ll find dairy aisles overflowing with creamy soy milk in every flavor from vanilla to chocolate. And the humble tofu that Americans once relegated to hippie cuisine has reinvented itself as a marinade-absorbing, grill-friendly ingredient waiting to be charred and sauced to perfection.

Soy’s Mainstream Popularity

According to retail data, over the past two decades, soy foods have transitioned from health food store curiosities to mainstream supermarket staples. In 2020, U.S. retail sales of soy-based meat alternatives like soy crumbles and veggie burgers hit $1 billion, while soy milk sales topped $1.6 billion. Those numbers will only continue rising as more Americans embrace soy’s sustainable nature and impressive nutrient profile. Unlike resource-intensive animal proteins, soy remains an efficient, eco-friendly protein with a low carbon footprint. Many also appreciate how affordable and accessible soy makes plant-based eating.

While these innovative new Western takes on soy are thrilling, let’s not forget that this mighty bean has fueled Asian civilizations for thousands of years. The soulful slurp of a Japanese miso soup, the aroma of soy sauce wafting from a Chinese wok, the nutty crunch of Indonesian fried tempeh – these soy delicacies have endured the test of time for good reason. By respecting time-honored traditions while pushing culinary creativity forward, the future of soy burns bright on tables both East and West.

So whether you’re grilling up a new breed of veggie burgers or stir-frying with umami-packed sauces, the soybean’s versatile magic is yours to unlock. This ancient Asian superstar has officially gone global.

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