daizu, dried soybeans, © Risa Sekiguchi, 2009
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This little red bean is high in protein, and its naturally sweet flavor has led to its use in many of Japan’s much-loved desserts, such as the bean paste that fills rice cakes and anpan (bea- filled buns). It is also cooked with mochi gome glutinous rice and sprinkled with salt and goma (sesame seeds) for sekihan, a special dish that is served on special occasions such as birthdays and festivals.

Daizu (dried soybean)
The soybean grew in popularity in the 7th century, when Buddhism entered Japan. High in protein, fat, and rich in calcium, vitamins and minerals, daizu is known as the “beef of the field.” The US is the largest producer, and Japan imports 5 million tons from around the world. Soybeans are used to make soybean oil, tofu, soymilk, miso, soy sauce, and a host of other things. Roasted and finely ground soybeans make kinako, a powdered coating for Japanese sweets. They can also be enjoyed boiled with seasonings and other vegetables.
Dried soybeans can be found in health food stores, and can be stored almost indefinitely in a cool, dark and dry place. Different varieties have different flavors – it’s best to ask for mild and bland varieties when making soymilk and tofu. I usually mail order my beans in bulk from a farm in Minneapolis. One 20-pound shipment lasts the whole year.


Edamame (fresh soybean)
Edamame, young green soybean pods full of succulent beans, are now enjoyed the world over at Japanese restaurants, usually served alongside cold beer. In the West they are available frozen, with or without their shells. If you are lucky enough to find them at a farmer's market, still on the branch (eda = branch, mame = bean) you are in for a special treat. Boil them in salted water for five minutes, or until they turn bright green and are still al dente. They can then be enjoyed hot or at room temperature. The pod is tough and hairy and is not eaten – just put the whole pod in your mouth and softly bite it to release the beans. High in protein and low in calories, are great as a healthy snack for kids. For cooked dishes, the shelled and frozen variety work well, adding color and protein to vegetarian dishes. TOP

Kuromame (black soybean)
The glossy black, long simmered sweet kuromame is one of the main auspicious dishes for the Oshogatsu New Year’s celebration, symbolizing fertility. They are simmered in sweet syrup, along with kombu. I’ve tried making the dish for the past two years, but no matter what I do, I can’t seem to replicate the meltingly soft texture of the store-bought beans. If someone has a secret, please let me know.


Natto (fermented soybeans)
This is known as one of the tests for non-Japanese who like Japanese food. My husband is always asked “You love Japanese food, but do you like natto?” Luckily, he loves this nutritious and inexpensive delicacy, and always elicits an amazed reaction when he gives his answer. But other Westerners — and many Japanese — find it far less appealing. The beans are allowed to ferment with a starter bacteria for over a day, which causes a sticky, slimy substance to form. This has an earthy, pungent aroma that some people liken to rotting cheese. It is usually eaten over rice for breakfast, flavored with soy sauce, a dab of hot mustard and chopped green onions or shiso. My nieces and nephew love my mom’s special natto maki with ground white sesame seeds.


I hardly have to explain what tofu is. Luckily, this miracle food is now consumed worldwide. But fresh tofu made in Japan is especially delicious. Although tofu is said to have very little flavor, I can certainly notice the difference between supermarket tofu in the U.S. and freshly made tofu from a specialty maker such as Morinaga in Kyoto. It is said that the better the water, the more delicious the tofu. You can also try making tofu yourself if the water in your area is clean and pure.
The health benefits of tofu are well known. It is high in vegetable protein, vitamins B1 and C, calcium, zinc and potassium. Tofu also contains essential amino acids. and is easy to digest, slows the aging process, and strengthens bones and teeth. Tofu has very little flavor of its own, and takes on the flavors of dipping and simmering sauces. It comes in many forms and is extremely versatile. Needless to say, tofu is best eaten fresh. Try to use it within a few days of purchase. It doesn’t freeze well, because the water trapped in the tofu turns into ice, forming air bubbles.
Kinu-goshi, or silken tofu, is the most nutritious. It is strained with silk and has a fine, soft, silken texture. It is best eaten raw with soy sauce and a dab of wasabi, or with a sprinkling of kastuo bushi and green onions. In winter, it is often enjoyed hot, as yudofu, where it is gently warmed in hot water and dipped in a delicious ponzu sauce.
Momen-goshi is strained with cotton, and has a firmer texture that workd well in soups and stews. It can also be grilled or fried, after excess water is removed. TOP


Age-dofu (fried tofu)
Age-dofu differs greatly in flavor and texture from fresh tofu. It has a chewy texture, which is appreciated in vegetarian cuisine. It can be found in plastic bags in the refrigerated section of Asian markets. I cut it into slices and add it to miso soup, or simmer the squares in flavored soy sauce for inari zushi. Age-dofu is often stuffed with vegetables in vegetarian temple cuisine. To get rid of excess oil, pour boiling water over the tofu.


Koya-dofu (freeze-dried tofu)
Koya-dofu was developed by monks who discovered that by freeze-drying tofu, it could be kept forever. Sold in plastic bags at Japanese markets, the beige, dry rectangular blocks are reconstituted in water and simmered in flavored broth. The texture is spongy and quite different from regular tofu. If you venture to Koyasan, a monastic retreat south of Osaka (for which Koya-dofu is named), I recommend that you stay for one night at a shukubo (pilgrim's retreat) connected to one of Koyasan's many temples. There, monks serve koya-dofu in many different ways.

Yuba is a specialty of Kyoto, made from the skin that forms on the surface of soymilk. Using a bamboo stick, the skin, which, like cream that rises to the top contains more fat, and is skimmed off in a single motion. It is then rolled to be served fresh, or dried in flat sheets over a charcoal fire. Dried yuba resembles stiff parchment paper. TOP

Okara (soybean lees)
Okara is the pulp that is leftover when making soy milk and tofu, and literally means “honorable husk”. It contains valuable fiber, nutrients and minerals such as iron, but unfortunately, is often discarded. Fresh okara doesn’t keep for very long, and difficult to find for sale in the West. More likely, you will come across dried okara, which is a popular health food staple for baking. However, if you have a soy milk maker and make soy milk or tofu regularly, you will find you have more than enough of this beige, crumbly pulp. Having almost no taste of its own, it soaks up the flavor of whatever condiments and sauces are used. I know this description doesn’t sound appetizing, but okara is a wonderful and versatile ingredient, and very delicious. Its crumbly and substantial texture is the yang to tofu’s creamy yin.

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