The Joy of Soy

Growing up, my only understanding of soy products was the little soy sauce packets that accompanied our monthly grocery store sushi.

Now, I have eight different soy products in my house, and am often found on the weekend perusing the two full aisles of soy products at H-Mart, grabbing tofu, dark soy, sweet soy or miso.

For a seemingly uninteresting crop, there are quite a large number of products that come from soybeans. Just take a look below.

Products:

  • Soybean milk
  • Tofu and soy nuggets = coagulated soybean milk
  • Soy protein (Yes, the protein drink Soylent is actually made from soybeans, not people)
  • Edamame = soybeans picked while still green
  • Vegetable oil = primarily soy-derived oil
  • Soy sauce
    • Tamari (gluten free)
    • Dark soy (more aged)
    • Sweet soy
  • Oyster sauce = soy sauce + liquid oyster reduction
  • Hoisin sauce = soy sauce + garlic, vinegar, sugar, five spice powder
  • Teriyaki sauce = soy sauce + mirin + sake
  • Miso = fermented soybean paste (light to dark depending on how long it has aged)
  • Doubanjiang = spicy Chinese fermented bean paste (usually a mix of broad beans and soybeans)

So, what’s the big deal about soybeans?

  • Is this another case of corn subsidies, where we produced so much corn, we had to come up with more things to make out of it? The U.S. does produce A LOT of soybeans. And, soybeans are actually a great rotator crop for corn. But while the U.S. is the second largest producer of soybeans behind Brazil, most of the edible soy products I list above are actually made with imported soybeans, or the products themselves are made overseas. Our soybeans are primarily exported or used for livestock feed (70%), cooking oils (15%) and biodiesel (5%). The remainder gets used in industrial applications (e.g. wood adhesives, printer ink) and organic foods like soylent. Apparently, 90% of the nation’s daily newspapers are printed with color soy ink.
  • When it comes to exports, you may remember from the trade war in 2018 that China is the number one buyer of American soybeans, which they use in livestock feed, cooking oils and products like soy sauce. When China retaliated to some of our tariffs by halting their purchase of soybeans, American farmers were quite upset.
  • Maybe soybeans are so popular because of their health benefits? I don’t do much science in my blog, but researchers do say that soybeans contain significant amounts of protein, calcium, vitamin C and vitamin B9. And tofu is, of course, a popular meat alternative.
  • But perhaps it’s not really about the soybeans, but the fermentation and addition of salt, which leads to an umami flavor in our favorite products listed above – soy sauces and miso.

Regardless, so many great products, and great meals, come out of soybeans. In my next post, we’ll dive into the hands-down best soy-derived product: miso.

Know of any other fun facts about soybeans? Let me know! And if you want to read more, a couple great resources on soy are Chris Shepherd’s Cook Like a Local: Flavors that can change how you cook and see the world and the salt episode of Samin Nosrat’s show Salt, Fat, Acid Heat on Netflix.

Have a lot of soy sauce in your pantry? Check out these recipes:

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