It's thought that the first written record of soybeans is dated 2838 b.c., and the Chinese have been cultivating them for thousands of years. So important are soybeans to the Chinese that they're considered one of the five sacred grains ("Wu Ku") along with rice, wheat, barley and millet. Soybeans didn't find their way to Japan until the 6th century and to Europe until the 17th century. Their extraordinary nutritive value was not scientifically confirmed until the 20th century. Although the United States didn't really become interested in soybeans until the 1920s, it now supplies about 75 percent of the world's total production. There are over 1,000 varieties of this nutritious legume, ranging in size from as small as a pea to as large as a cherry. Soybean pods, which are covered with a fine tawny to gray fuzz, range in color from tan to black. The beans themselves come in various combinations of red, yellow, green, brown and black. Dried soybeans are mature beans that have been shelled and dried. Their flavor is generally quite bland, which may explain why they weren't embraced by Western cultures until their nutritive value was discovered. Unlike other legumes, the soybean is low in carbohydrates and high in protein—in fact, soy protein is the most economical source of protein in the world. Soy products are also a good source of iron and contain vitamins B1 and B2 and an essential oil—linoleic acid, one of the Omega-3 fatty acids. Because they're inexpensive and nutrition-packed, soybeans are used to produce a wide variety of products including kecap; meat analogs; miso; natto; okara; soybean oil; soy cheese; soy flour; soy ice cream; soy margarine; soy mayonnaise;soy milk; soy nuts; soy sauce; soy sour cream; soy yogurt; tamari; tempeh; tofu; and yuba. Soybeans can be cooked (after being presoaked) like any other dried bean to be used in soups, stews, casseroles, etc. They can also be sprouted (see sprouts) and used in salads or as a cooked vegetable. Green soybeans—commonly called by their Japanese name, edamame—are fresh soybeans—picked when they're fully grown but before they're completely mature. They're generally left in their pods, which are a bright green color with characteristic fuzz. Edamame are easy to digest and extremely high in protein and fiber. They're available pretty much year-round, with a peak from spring through fall. You'll find them in natural food stores, specialty produce markets, Asian markets and some supermarkets. They can also be found frozen, typically in 1-pound bags. Edamame are sold raw or ready-to-eat. If you buy the raw form, steam them for 20 minutes in the pod, then refrigerate until chilled. Serve edamame in their pods as a snack or appetizer. Pop the pods and shell them as you would peanuts. Soybean by-products are used in making margarines, as emulsifiers in many processed foods and in nonfood items such as soaps and plastics. Dried soybeans, beans for sprouting and a huge variety of soybean products are available in supermarkets, Asian markets and natural food stores. The soybean is also called soya bean and soja. See also beans; textured vegetable protein

From The Food Lover's Companion, Fourth edition by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. Copyright © 2007, 2001, 1995, 1990 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

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