After rice, soy beans have become a staple in many Asian societies. First cultivated in China some 5,000 years ago, this legume became a favorite among Buddhists, whose religion forbade milk or meat. They discovered that processed soy beans can become a substitute for these forbidden food, and so help spread the consumption of soy beans throughout the rest of Asia. Today, soy bean products have become an all-around substitute for milk and meat products, being low in calories, no cholesterol or saturated fats, and rich in protein and iron. It can be stewed, fried, steamed, or barbequed; it can be served as a main dish, additives, snack, dessert, side dish, and/or beverage. Its health benefits are a delight among nutritionists and vegetarians: soy beans help fight prostate and breast cancer as well as reduce cholesterol. Soy bean products are well-associated with the vegetarian and new age movements in Western countries, many of whom propagate soy culture by borrowing recipes from the East.
Soy beans are the main ingredient of that quintessential Asian dish, tofu. The preparation of tofu is simple: soy beans are first submerged in water for a few hours to soften them. Then, they are mashed together and added with water to make soy milk. A final step is the addition of sea salt which makes the milk coagulate into curds, which are filtered through cheesecloth and pressed to draw the milk out. The remaining white, jelly-like substance is tofu. There are three main categories of tofu, all dependent on moisture content: silken, firm, and dried.
One form of tofu, known as stinky tofu, is known for its malodorous smell, spongy texture, and mild flavor. The smell of this food is described to be like rotting garbage or manure, with a little kimchi mixed in. Directly translated from the chinese chou doufu, stinky tofu is prepared by immersing tofu in fermented brine for several months. And by “femented”, I mean rotting. The brine itself is made from greens, bamboo shoots, milk, and various meats. It is a popular street cuisine in Hong Kong, Taiwan (where it is considered the unofficial national dish), and Indonesia, and is served steamed, deep-fried, or stewed, and may be accompanied by hoisin sauce.
Soy beans also come in the form of a salty, dark-brown condiment called soy sauce. Authentic soy sauce is made by fermenting soy beans with yeast, mashed, then refined. It is a necessary seasoning for many Asian dishes, as well as a dipping sauce for the table.
In the Philippines, soy beans is enjoyed most in the form of popular street snack called taho. This yogurt-like concoction is similar to fresh tofu as both are eaten with spoons. Taho is served by street vendors who carry shiny tin containers that are balanced on both ends of a wooden plank. One can holds the hot taho, which is scooped into a cup. The other can holds the caramel sauce and tapioca which is mixed in the cup. These vendors travel the residential streets and main thoroughfares in the early morning to serve this instant and affordable breakfast to the hungry populace. If you are wary of the hygiene of these taho vendors, you can try the taho served in the supermarkets of Manila, which comes in various flavors.
A recent trend in the Taiwanese snack scene is fermented tofu that is cubed, skewered, and roasted on hot charcoals, a kind of tofu kebab. If you drop by Taiwan anytime soon, take the time to travel to Shen Keng, the heart of tofu culture in this country. A suburb south of Taipei that is accessible by a half-hour bus ride, Shen Keng is visited by thousands during weekends and holidays, who flock one particular narrow street that is lined with diners, road stalls, and restaurants that specialize in a multitude of tofu dishes. The favorite here is spicy stinky tofu stew, a red, soupy dish that is served with white rice and bamboo soup.
All in all, soy beans deserve their reputation as a pillar of vegetarian living. Food technology today try to process soybean curds to look and taste like meat to create a healthier and viable alternative source of proteins. And proponents have to make the pilgrimage to Asia, where soybeans have long been respected as integral to a healthy way of living.