Soy, the Miraculous Bean

Soy foods play a prevalent role in today's health community. But unless you've been actively eating healthy for some time, you may not be aware of what soy foods are and what types of soy foods exist. Amazingly, all soy foods are ultimately produced from the soybean, which is a tasty treat on its own. From this versatile tiny bean comes a healthy variety of foods of many different textures and tastes.

It's thought that the first written record of soybeans is dated 2838 b.c., and the Chinese have been cultivating them for thousands of years. So important are soybeans to the Chinese that they're considered one of the five sacred grains ("Wu Gu") along with rice, wheat, barley and millet. Soybeans didn't find their way to Japan until the 6th century and to Europe until the 17th century. Their extraordinary nutritive value was not scientifically confirmed until the 20th century.

Native to China, the soybean is a legume, like the peanut. Unlike other legumes, the soybean is low in carbohydrates and yields high-quality protein and edible oils. Because they're inexpensive and nutrition-packed, soybeans become the basis of an astonishing range of food items and industrial products.

In East Asia, soybeans are used in a multitude of forms, e.g., as soy sauce, soybean meal, vegetable oil, tofu (bean curd), miso (fermented soybean paste), and soy milk, and as a coffee substitute. In the United States, soybean products such as tofu, miso, and soy milk have become especially popular in low fat and vegetarian diets.

Soy Sauce
Many of us happily use the savory soy sauce as a condiment in Chinese and Japanese restaurants without ever taking the time to realize where it comes from. Used in all manners of dishes and marinades, or simply as a dipping sauce, soy sauce is created from fermenting soybeans and mixing them with a salty brine.

As with miso, there are a few varieties of tofu available for consumption and use. Tofu is made from curdled soy milk, and the differences in the procedure used to curdle the soy milk can result in the different varieties of tofu, ranging from a very soft, silky texture, to a hard, crumbly block.

Tofu is a versatile product that can be used in a vast number of ways. It can be infused with herbs and spices, or simply baked with a sweet or savory sauce. Tofu is favored for its ability to absorb the flavor of other ingredients, and so can be used in virtually any dish, and is especially useful in the healthy and vegetarian communities as a meat substitute.