The Wonders of Soy

The Wonders of Soy

Added In: Articles › Japanese Food culture

Meridith Paterson

When most foreigners think of Japanese cuisine, sushi probably comes first followed in close second by the soybean. Products ranging from soy milk and tofu to imitation chicken and burgers have made the long trip to Western grocery stores, in an increasingly health crazed world. But in Japan soy cuisine has long satisfied appetites and provided essential nutrients as a staple food. So having made my final decision to come to Japan, I couldn’t wait to sample the ‘real thing’ and introduce more soy products into my diet.

Still jetlagged, I faced a cherub-cheeked logo on a triple-stack of Styrofoam boxes wishing the katakana to whisper the contents to me. I risked the eighty-eight yen, and the next day wished I hadn’t soon after opening the lid. The contents looked to me like large spider eggs just webbed in mom’s silk. But my goals for cultural experience included trying Japanese food, especially soy, so I dug in with my chopsticks, shaking off some of the tangled white substance. Sticky texture aside, I couldn’t get past the yeast taste—like a dark beer. I soon learned I’d gone through a Westerner’s right of passage into Japanese food by eating nattō.

Like so many other kinds of food, debate continues over the origins of the process that created the first nattō dish. However, my favorite nattō story originates with Yoshiie Minamoto, a Japanese soldier, leading troops in Northeastern Japan around 1083. After setting up camp one evening, the soldiers began to steam soybeans for their horses, until they were ambushed. They had to scramble and save as much of the food as possible by shoveling it into straw bags. Later they opened the bags to find a similar concoction to what I’d first viewed opening up my carton. Yoshiie and his soldiers loved the taste, and so nattō was born. Before the Taisho Period and the discovery of the nattō culture, producers fermented the steamed soybeans in packed straw in a warm area of the house or underground beneath a fire.

Modern developments have ordered nattō production into a regimented process, the reverse of Yoshiie’s soldiers’ haphazard creation. Beans at  Mizkan’s four nattō factories go through an automated process worthy of army honors. At Takahama, in its seventh year, one hundred and twenty employees run the machines that crank out twenty different products twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week to feed the nattō needs of Chubu. Five kinds of soybeans, including seed-like sizes and organic, begin their journey from the overseas or different part of Japan to Nagoya port.

Upon arrival, they undergo a sorting process as strict as airport immigration. Machines pick out other grains that might have mixed in during shipping and any bad beans, and shake the rest into the correct category based on size. The beans commence their transformation aided by stainless steel, automated machines. Recovering from their journey they soak in a water bath for eight to twelve hours until they have about doubled in size. The beans get steamed for one hour after which they shower in bacillus nattō  (known as nattō-kin in Japanese). Before fermentation creates the famous sticky net around the bean, they go into their various packaging based on bean, portion and additional sauce. The beans age for about eighteen hours in rooms heated to thirty-seven to forty degrees Celsius. After cooling down in fridges and rolling through packaging lines that wrap them up like little gifts, they re-board vehicles to end their journey at various grocery stores in the Chubu  region. Voila, nattō!

 Mizkan’s products undergo a more thorough inspection than Yoshiie’s beans. The windowless factory keeps out bugs and the air pressure difference between production rooms and the outside keeps out pollutants in the air. Machines check each container to confirm nothing extra got into the package. Diligent employees keep watch over the ranks of robots dumping beans, shifting pallets, and spooling out sauce packets. In a chemistry like lab, more employees test nattō samples with chemicals and their fives sense to ensure the best product. They also ensure the activeness of each batch of bacterium before it’s used on the factory floor. And just in case you ever forget your beans at the back of the fridge, they keep different varieties past their sell by date to see what happens. So at last you can have some answers about what that month over due nattō might start to taste like or do to your stomach if you eat it. Because they also manufacture their own sauces, the company can guarantee the highest quality flavor.

Many Japanese people inherited Yoshie’s sense of taste, and enjoy the beans for breakfast, often with raw egg mixed in. Nattō soybeans live up to their versatile reputation going well, I’ve heard, in omelets, over spaghetti or soba, in okonomiyaki, and even a Japanese version of British beans on toast with melted cheese over the top.

When my Japanese acquaintances discover I’m a “sort of” vegetarian and into healthy eating, they always suggest nattō for my recommended daily allotment of protein. Other benefits include a compound (soy protein and isoflavon ) and enzymes that may reduce heart attacks and strokes, and Vitamin K which can help to prevent osteoporosis. After making my arm X, my most useful symbol for no, and telling them I’d tried it and can’t eat it despite the benefits, they always laugh.

Despite my experience, all newcomers should try nattō, although perhaps not for breakfast if they happen to have a weaker stomach like myself.  Mizkan recommends their vinegar flavored plum source  for those who dislike the taste, or dried natto as a snack without the slimy texture. We Westerners consume worse foods without too much cringing, processed fast food chunks that evolved from any number of animal parts. Some delicacies could take more courage. Calf brains, blood sausage, and haggis top my “I’m sorry just don’t think I can” list. And unlike these other refined dishes, it’s cheap! A must for dark ale drinkers, their taste buds seem to like the flavor.

Luckily, a myriad of other soybean options exist for those, such as myself, who find themselves incapable of acquiring the taste for the delicacies of nattō, including tofu. Tofu-lovers worldwide praise the familiar white block for its versatility in cooking and many health benefits. According to a survey by What Japan Thinks, about eighty-eight percent of Japanese people like or love tofu. But Mr. Ishikawa, president of the O-Tofu Factory Ishikawa, gives all tofu lovers solid competition as the biggest fan of tofu and other soybean products with his dream of spreading the pleasures of soy to all parts of the world.

Tofu was actually first made during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220) in China by Lord Liu of Huai-nan. During his research to develop new foods for a diet lacking in meat, he discovered how to make tofu. The method later made the sea journey to Japan during the late Heian period (794 to 1185). Although China claims birthrights, Japanese tofu consumption outstrips Chinese while Japanese tofu production has become famous the world over.

To make tofu, white or black soy beans soak in water for ten to twenty-four hours, go through a grinding process and are heated to about one hundred degrees Celcius. A cotton cloth filters the milk from the mash. The milk is then heated with water, and poured into a wooden box lined with holes and a fine cloth. The maker adds nigari, a bitter liquid drawn from sea salt swollen from the humid weather, in order to curdle (or solidify) the liquid while the water drains out. This creates silken tofu (kinu). For a firmer block (momen) the curd goes through a second mash and press.

In the Ishikawa factory not much has changed from the traditional process. The factory looks like a ship’s deck; all crew and visitors must wear rubber boots to protect their feet from the water draining off machines and puddles on the floor—like a toddler’s post-rain playground. Mr. Ishikawa employs just over three hundred friendly crew to oversee the automated production of his tofu and other soy products at his three factories. Stainless steel machines and metal sieves have replaced stone grinders, cotton cloth, and wooden boxes but the process stays true to tradition. However, Mr. Ishikawa also offers handmade tofu for the more traditional enthusiast. Inside walk-in fridges, firm tofu waits under cotton cloths and silken tofu in vats of water for shipment the next day to all parts of Japan. They also bag okara (the by-product after squeezing the milk from the bean) for sale and as an ingredient in making even more soy products. In high quality tofu the bean must come first. All Ishikawa’s soy comes from domestic farms. They contain higher amounts of protein and soy sugar and are better suited to making tofu. At Ishikawa they never add any artificial substances.

No one has more passion for discovering new uses for soy and tofu than Mr. Ishikawa. Even though his words came by translation, I could hear the care he has for his beans and his creative energy for all Ishikawa foods. He spreads the leaflets of their current products on the table like a proud parent. I felt like I’d just opened my stocking on Christmas morning. Of course his factories produce the well-known white bricks, eggy smelling fried tofu (Nameage or Aburage), Ganmodoki (also fried tofu but with slices of vegetables and seaweed added to the liquid before pressing), and black sesame tofu (the same block shape but with a stoney complexion). Already I began to salivate. They’ve created soy-based snacks for those who have allergies to wheat, lactose, and nuts. Other sweets include okara cookies, doughnuts, muffins, and jelly. Ishikawa uses soymilk to make ice cream, cheesecake, puddings, and even tiramisu—joy for those who have lactose allergies but love Italian desserts. In Ishikawa bakeries they make additive free bread with soymilk instead of water. The list continues to grow.

All these temptations have many health benefits as well. As most vegetarians know, tofu contains high amounts of protein and calcium, thus providing for meatless and milk-less diets. Nigari contains magnesium which is even more difficult to obtain in most diets. Coupling calcium with magnesium is the best way to ingest both nutrients. The soy sugar also assists in digestion, and consuming three hundred grams of tofu a day can lower cholesterol. Eating tofu or rubbing okara on the face acts like a spa treatment and facial leaving the skin softer. And, Mr Ishikawa laughs, it’ll make you thin.

Mr. Ishikawa grew up with his hands in tofu. His parents taught him how to hand form tofu the way their family has for hundreds of years. After university and gaining experience at a larger tofu firm, he took over the family company from his father. At first the business aspect of the factory drove his work. Until, one day, inspiration sparked from his three boys. He knew they should eat soy, but did they really enjoy eating it? This question ignited a quest to help people not only dine on tofu and soy for their health, but for the pure bliss of the food. In North America, he visited the soybean fields of Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio, and Ontario and studied how the taste for tofu continues to develop. He studied the American boom in tofu consumption to get new ideas. For example, in many health restaurants they blend tofu with fruit and soy milk to make a smoothie-like drink.

Children tend to have the pickiest tastes when it comes to health food but concoct the most imaginative dishes. To encourage their delight in tofu, Mr. Ishikawa invites local school children to his factory to learn about the process. They then test their tastes. Each student has a sample of tofu with different condiments to choose from—syrup, mayonnaise, or miso. Some children even mix them all together as an experiment. The students enjoy the freedom of playing with their food, and no one needs to tell them “Eat this, it’s good for you!”

Mr. Ishikawa himself has a child’s kitchen vision. He and his fellow soy connoisseurs continuously work on new and better products. Current developments include a soy-based yogurt, pudding without egg or milk, and of course a better tofu. His cafés and restaurant buyers also continue to create new recipes to cater to all taste buds. For Mr. Ishikawa the possibilities for soy match the number of individual tastes in the world.  He says he’s always open to new suggestions; even my idea to encourage more American consumers by making a spread for tofu and peanut butter sandwiches. He hopes to see the continued expansion of soy happiness in American, European, and all world markets. Tofu has even made it to Africa where one of his friends works against hunger by teaching Africans about tofu. He says they only eat it after it’s described as a cheese. Mr. Ishikawa believes because soy offers a renewable source through farming, it’s a better option than animals.

People’s tastes change over time, and sometimes move away from tradition. But Mr. Ishikawa says that’s okay as long as they take pleasure in eating it. He compares his work to a good musician bringing happiness with their art. But since he can’t play, he wants to keep bringing elation through spreading soy. In his book, Easy Handmade Tofu, he offers his own recipes for handmade tofu and even soy doughnuts to develop interest in eating soy based products and gaining inspiration from other people to concoct new recipes. 

Judging by the customer walking from the shop/café outside the Takahama City factory, a soy ice cream cone in hand despite the rain, he has already succeeded in bringing happiness. By five o’clock, customers had already bought up most of the baked goods and desserts. The okara snacks, like a heavy potato chip, come in a variety of flavors from black sesame to salted and spiced, but beware they all have addictive properties. Customers can also purchase the most popular Ishikawa tofu, and Mr. Ishikawa’s favorite; turnover has increased 99 times in the last 15 years. They parcel the high-quality silken tofu, Kyukyoku-no-kinu, like a gift basket with a purple label.

Whether braving the yeast smell and spindly lines of protein tacked onto chopsticks when trying nattō for the first time, or grilling a firm tofu steak, Japan offers a wonderland of soy. Purists and health idealists can select from some of the best tofu in the world to bake, stir-fry, or blend their own low calorie dishes. Sweet and snack enthusiasts have a chance to feed their cravings and better their health at the same time. There’s no reason to eat the same old food every breakfast, lunch, and dinner when soy’s on the menu.

The Wonders of Soy
Natto in all its glory!
The Wonders of Soy
Spoilt for natto choise