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Smoking Hot - Soy Products

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Soy Products

It is hard to describe Asian cuisine and culture without mentioning the soybean and the vast variety of by-products that are produced from this one plant. Soy has been treasured in Asia for millennia because of its versatility. In China, soybeans have been grown for 5,000 years, and their use quickly spread throughout the rest of Asia.

Soy has been treasured in Asia for millennia because of its versatility. In China soybeans have been grown for 5,000 years, and their use quickly spread throughout the rest of Asia.

Eaten as sprouts and also as young green fresh beans (known as edamame in Japan), soybeans are used to produce milk, which can then be turned into tofu or bean curd, which is eaten in China, Japan, and Korea, as well as Thailand and Malaysia. Tempeh, a lightly fermented bean curd, has a nutty flavor. There are many other pastes, sauces, and condiments that use fermented soybeans as a base, and to which other flavors can be added. Then there is soy sauce, both light and dark, used to marinate and infuse, and as an essential condiment in many Asian cultures. In Java, a soy sauce called ketjap manis is traditionally sweetened with palm sugar and scented with star anise and galangal.

Soy makes an important nutritional contribution where there is little or no dairy in the diet and meat is scarce and expensive. A single acre of land growing soybeans can yield nearly 20 times more protein than the same acre used for raising cattle.

Light and dark soy sauce

The use of this quintessential condiment has been documented in Chinese cooking for centuries. It was originally more textured, but today both light and dark soy sauce are strained of all trace of bean solids. Once used to preserve fresh produce over the winter months, soy sauce is the distilled product of roasted soybeans, flour, and water. These are naturally fermented, then aged.

Light soy sauce is not short on flavor—it is the saltier of the two types. It is good for seafood dishes, vegetables, and light dipping sauces. Dark soy sauce is used much more in Northern China. Aged for longer than light soy, it contains a dark molasses. Despite its dark color, its taste is softer than light soy sauce. Important in the Asian larder, it is used in stews and braises, and with meat such as duck, beef, and venison.


In Japan, the use of soy sauce (shoyu) can be traced back about 1,000 years, when it was introduced by the Chinese. The fermentation method is the same, but Japanese soy sauce tends to have a sweeter, less salty taste, due to a larger proportion of wheat. Tamari is a rich, dark soy sauce made without wheat and much prized in Japan. Unfortunately, not all tamari sold in the West is of the same high quality as in its native Japan.

Tofu and bean curd

Tofu (Japanese) and doufu (Chinese) most likely originated in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220). It is made from yellow soybeans that are soaked, ground, and cooked to form the milk product, which is then solidified and aged. Soft bean curd is called silken tofu and often comes packed in water. When the bean curd is deep-fried, the smooth texture transforms into a sponge-like web that is crisp on the outside.

Fermented bean products

Fermented bean curd can be preserved in rice wine, brine, or chiles, to be used in condiments. It can be eaten on its own or as a condiment, or used in seasoning. Red fermented bean curd is naturally colored by adding red rice and has a thick consistency. It is often combined with chiles to make a hot bean paste. This is used in Sichuan cooking, as well as in Korea, where it is called kochujang and originates from the region of Sunchang. In both these cuisines, it forms an important and distinctive flavoring.


Miso is an essential part of Japanese culture and a cornerstone ingredient in Japanese soups, marinades, spreads, and dressings. It is most commonly used as the base for miso soup—a warm bowl of miso soup is a traditional part of any Japanese breakfast. This paste of fermented soybeans varies in color from pale brown, through red, to dark chocolate brown, depending on whether it is fermented with rice, barley, or wheat. Miso is probably most similar to the original runny Chinese soybean sauce that was introduced to Japan about 1,000 years ago by Chinese Buddhist monks. Miso has a wine-like pungency and combines brilliantly with ginger, sesame, and Japanese soy sauce, to work as an anchor in the Japanese range of tastes.

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