What is Soy and How Do You Use It?

Soya Bean CAN: Jeong yow

FR: Pois chinois, Soja, Soui, Soya

GER: Soja

IT: Soia

JAPAN: Shoyu

SP: Soja

BOT: Glycine max (Glycine soja)

FAM: Leguminosae ILL: Plate 3, No. 4

The soy bean is a native of South East Asia and one of the oldest crops, being already cultivated in China round 3000 BC. In spite of this long history, it was quite unknown in Europe until the end of the seventeenth century and was only a curiosity until quite late in the nineteenth century. There are now thousands of varieties and millions of acres grown all over the world. The soy bean is undoubtedly the world’s most important legume, being used not only as food but even as a raw material in industry. As a food the soy bean is extremely rich in both oil and protein. It is eaten as a fresh bean (it does not stand frost), as a dried bean and as a bean flour, and it is a source of a good cooking oil much used as a substitute for olive oil in Spain. Even a kind of milk is made from it. In the East, it is also fermented to make various kinds of curd and bean cheese. The soy product which concerns us is soy sauce.

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Soy sauce is extremely important in China, Japan and any areas which have a sizable number of Chinese immigrants. It is thought to have been brought from China to Japan by a Buddhist priest about AD 500. In the West it became well-known during the nineteenth century. It is one of the ingredients of Worcestershire sauce and Harvey’s sauce. One can imagine that in an era where bottled ketchups and sauces were used extensively, soy sauce as a newcomer would be hailed with delight.

There are many types of soy sauce, and the methods of making it vary from place to place. In general it is made by fermenting a salted mixture of cooked soy beans and wheat or barley flour and then extracting the liquid. The result is a thin sauce with a salty, rather meaty flavour, usually dark brown in colour though it can range from black to pale straw. (See South East Asian Food -Brissenden.)

Soy sauce is essential in Far Eastern cooking and has been enthusiastically adopted in America, possibly diffusing from the Pacific coast. It is a common ingredient in marinades and barbecue sauces. This is a product which must be on the shelf of everyone interested in the cooking of eastern Asia, although continual heavy use is said to be bad for the liver.

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