GOCHISO GOURMET: The joy of soy

Barley meishi. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

The humble soybean is so versatile; a multitude of food applications can be employed to satisfy any soy craving. From slightly sweetened okara served simply “as is” or formed into fried croquettes to slightly sweetened soy milk as a morning vegetarian milk substitute to that ubiquitous curdled soy milk product, tofu, to the refined textured vegetable soy protein meat substitutes, the byproducts of the soybean are here to stay.

In its Simplest Form
When immature soybeans are harvested as a food source, they are simply known as edamame or “twig bean.” I’m sure you’ve sampled these at your favorite izakaya, where they simply may be steamed or sometimes steamed then flash fried with various seasonings. When “squished” out of their pods, this popular bar food makes for a healthy snack with a fair amount of protein and fiber. I often mix the “shelled” variety with rice (along with furikake and nametake ochazuke) for added protein and the “bite” they add to the soft rice. An added benefit to consuming edamame in their native form is that you get all of the protein (some of the water soluble proteins are lost during the processing of soy milk) and all of the fiber. Oh, I realize some of you may not appreciate bean fiber for its “musical” side effects. It doesn’t bother me at all, I just tell people that I’m not gassy but my intestinal bacteria are. …

Happy Beans Produce Happy Milk
I can just visualize a commercial with two soybeans talking to each other about how good life is ala the California Milk Advisory Board’s Happy Cow commercials. The commercial ends with Happy Soybeans make Good Milk and Good Tofu. Since the U.S. is the largest producer of soybeans, WHY NOT? Just give me credit for the commercial.

When dried soybeans are rehydrated and ground (full fat soy flour also accomplishes the same), the resulting liquid is soy milk. With about the same amount of protein as cow’s milk, but a lot less saturated fat, soy milk is an attractive alternative, especially for those who can’t digest milk sugar or lactose. It doesn’t contain the same amount of calcium since the calcium is bound to the fibrous material of the soybean, but this is easily remedied with the addition of calcium carbonate. Because I am a sukoshi bit lactose intolerant, I prefer consuming soy milk in place of cow’s milk; especially with a little bit of mocha syrup added to the glass.
Though soy milk is great on its own, the biggest use in Asian cuisine is coagulating it to produce tofu. Since I wrote an article totally dedicated to tofu about two years ago (http://gochisogourmet.com/Feb2_2009.html), I won’t belabor the point other than to state that tofu still occupies a significant part of my diet in all forms. Soft, medium, firm, fried, deep fried and yes, even fermented as the basis for the “gravy” in jai.

Soybean Byproducts
After the rehydrated soybeans are ground to produce soy milk, there’s a lot of “stuff,” namely fiber and protein along with vitamins and minerals that don’t make it into the soy milk that’s leftover. Stateside, this “stuff” is usually used for pig or cattle feed. This “stuff,” or okara, previously was given away by the pound at tofu factories, where lucky recipients would use it as filler for vegetarian patties or cook it with shoyu, mirin, carrots, gobo and shiitake for a side dish called unohana. Because of utility in cooking (and probably because of the large Japanese community in the 50th), okara now costs more than soybeans, tofu or any other soybean-based product. That’s why I now get my soybean fiber from edamame.

Tofu production also creates a surface “skin” that’s usually dried to produce yuba, which is a good source of protein and unsaturated fat. After rehydrating, this soy milk skin has a firmer texture than firm or fried tofu and adds a pleasing “bite” to stir fried dishes. And unlike fried or deep fried tofu (abuurage), which had to be refrigerated, the dried yuba can be stored at room temperature. It just takes rehydration overnight as the dried consistency is akin to hard plastic.

Fermented Soybeans
Two types of fermented soybeans are Japanese cooking staples; a third type is … well, that takes a little getting’ used to. When soybeans are fermented via Aspergillus oryzae or sojae with salt and water, you ultimately end up with soy sauce or shoyu. Not just a cooking and seasoning staple in Japan, but throughout most of Asia. When these same soybeans are combined with rice and perhaps a little barley and a koji mold starter, the end product is miso — essential for pickled vegetables, that morning bowl of soup and perhaps the Gochiso Gourmet’s favorite application, miso butterfish.

Natto chirashi. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Then there’s soybeans that are fermented with Bacillis subtilis, which develop that piquant aroma of toe jam and the consistency of … snot. The nutritionist part of me wants to enjoy natto knowing that fermentation improves the digestibility of the bean proteins and reduces indigestible sugars that cause the “musical” side effects … In all fairness, though, I have tried it on multiple occasions and actually REALLY enjoy it as a chirashi sushi with cubed raw ahi and fukujinzuke. And by itself, it simply tastes like those coffee grounds at the bottom of a cup of Turkish coffee.

Soybean and Soy Product Recipes
I first posted this recipe in the November 2006 column, but since that was more than five years ago and edamame never gets old (for me at least), here it goes moichido:

Brown Rice Meshi
5 cups cooked brown rice
1 bottle nametake (roughly 1 cup)
1/2 bottle furikake (roughly 1/3 cup)
1 lb shelled edamame

Soak rice overnight then cook using conventional rice pot or electric cooker. During the last 10 minutes of the steaming of the rice, layer edamame over rice then cover. When the rice is done cooking, pour into a large mixing bowl and toss to evenly distribute the edamame. Add nametake and furikake and toss again to evenly distribute.

Nametake are bottled small, long mushrooms seasoned with shoyu and other flavorings. They are labeled as ajitsuke, ochazuke, aji, etc but usually also include nametake on the label. You can use any flavor of furikake, but I find that varieties that contain bonito flakes provide the most flavor. There are also furikake brands with no added salt or MSG. You can steam then shell your own fresh edamame, though it’s readily available pre-shelled and frozen, chilled or vacuum-sealed for convenience.

This next recipe is from Ina Garten’s Mocha Chocolate Icebox Cake, which is an easy version of the classic tiramisu. I substituted a block of Mori-Nu tofu for some of the cream cheese and renamed the recipe in tribute of that luscious soy custard, tofu:

Tofu-I-Miss-You
2 cups cold heavy cream
8 ounces whipped cream cheese
12 ounces firm tofu
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup Kahlua Mocha (or other coffee liqueur)
2 tbsp Valrhona cocoa powder (or other cocoa powder)
1 tsp instant espresso powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
Roughly 1 to 1 & 1/2 lbs of thin chocolate chip cookies (without nuts)
Shaved chocolate for garnish

In a large mixing bowl, with a hand-held electric mixer, slowly beat the first eight ingredients on low, then slowly increase speed until stiff peaks form.

Arrange cookies in one layer on the bottom of an eight to nine-inch spring form pan covering as much of the bottom as possible.

Spread about a 1/2-inch layer of the cream mixture, covering all of the cookies. Repeat the process until you have four or five layers ending with the cream mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

To serve, remove the side of the spring form pan then garnish with the shaved chocolate.

Final Words
So for those who always thought the humble soybean and its byproducts were boring, think again. Different forms, different textures, different flavors, all from that little legume known as Glycine max. It literally fills the whole menu continuum from appetizer to entree to side to dessert. When was the last time the same could be said about beef or pork? And it’s nutritious to boot! Like having your cake (or tiramisu) and eating it too! So if I’ve peaked your interest (and appetite), please attend the Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival at the San Francisco Japantown Peace Plaza Saturday, June 2, from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. to discover all that is the Joy of Soy! For more information, visit http://soyandtofufest.org.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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