Food & Fitness

Kirill Yurovskiy: Soy Products in the Cooking of the World

Soy products have become an integral part of cuisines around the world. From tofu in Asia to soy sauce in the Americas, soy adds nutrition, flavor, and versatility to dishes across cultures. Read on as we explore the origins of soy, its health benefits, and creative ways cooks worldwide have incorporated it into their cooking.Text by

The Story of Soy

Soybeans originated in East Asia, with the earliest cultivation traced back to 11th century BC China. Initially viewed as an agricultural crop, soybeans were slowly introduced into the Chinese diet, with earliest references to tofu appearing around 200 BC. As Buddhism spread soy-based vegetarian cuisine through China and much of East Asia, tofu became a mainstream staple. By the 9th century AD, its production technique had spread to Japan, developing into an important part of Japanese cuisine.

Meanwhile, soy sauce was invented in 2nd century China, imparting salty flavor into food. Its popularity quickly exploded – by the 7th century, soy sauce had traveled along trade routes to southeast Asia. European traders eventually discovered it, bringing it back home to Europe. By the 18th century, soy sauce arrived in the Americas, where it was incorporated into ketchup and Worcestershire sauce.

Today, soy continues its worldwide culinary tour. As globalization connects the world’s food cultures, soy products like tofu and soy sauce have become global hits. Health-conscious eaters have also boosted soy’s popularity for its nutritional benefits. Let’s now explore the science-backed superpowers of soy.

Health Boons of Soy

Soy foods are packed with disease-fighting nutrients. They contain high-quality vegetarian protein, providing all essential amino acids needed to build and maintain muscle. Soy protein has also been shown to lower LDL “bad” cholesterol. Additionally, soy foods contain various bioactive compounds associated with health perks:

  • Isoflavones: These potent antioxidants mimic estrogen to boost heart health in women, improve bone health, and relieve menopause symptoms. 
  • Saponins: These compounds have anti-cancer effects by slowing tumor cell growth.  
  • Phytosterols: These molecules help lower LDL cholesterol to clear artery blockages. 

The fat in soybeans is also a heart helper, containing omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats that lower inflammation and cholesterol. Taken altogether, soy products supply a powerhouse combo of disease-fighting nutrients lacking in many Western diets. Let’s now tour soy’s starring role in the cuisines of the world!

Asia: Soy Origins

As soy’s ancestral home, Asia boasts a long history infusing soy into traditional cuisine. 

In China, extra-firm tofu often stars in stir-fries, braises, and soup. Soymilk softens rice porridges into soothing breakfast fare. And Chinese congee rice porridge is considered comfort food. Fermented black soybeans add a savory, cheese-like flavor to sauces and claypot casseroles. Soy sauce and hoisin sauce punch up fried rice and noodle bowls. 

In Japan, tofu is transformed into delectable forms. Silken tofu becomes the smooth base of miso soup, while soft tofu fries into crispy agedashi tofu. Nutty fermented soybeans sprinkle Japanese rice cakes and salad greens. Most famous is tofu pudding, with rich custard-like soft silken tofu drizzled with sweet ginger syrup. 

Throughout Southeast Asia, tofu and tempeh (fermented soybean cake) stars in curries, stir-fries, stews, and noodle bowls. Vietnamese spring rolls enfold tofu and noodles in chewy rice paper wraps. And in Indonesia, tempeh is deep-fried or braised in coconut milk curries. 

Clearly, Asia sets the gold standard for inventive, flavorful soy cuisine!

Pan-Pacific: Hawaii and California

The Pan-Pacific region infuses Asian soy influences into its regional fare. Hawaii’s cuisine integrates Japanese and Chinese culinary traditions, with tofu appearing in their mixed plate lunches and pineapple tofu pudding. Local soymilk brand Aloha Shoyu also supplies Hawaiian kitchens with made-in-Hawaii soy sauce. 

Meanwhile in California, Sacramento and San Francisco boast high Asian-American populations. Chinese restaurants popularized tofu while sushi bars drove demand for edamame soybeans. Their creative chefs have even fused cuisines to invent “sushi burritos” – complete with rice, raw fish, and avocado wrapped in nori seaweed and soy paper! 

With rich cultural fusion and innovation, the Pan-Pacific keeps expanding soy’s culinary boundaries.

Europe: New Applications

While Asia birthed soy cuisine, Europe has recently embraced it. However, most Europeans were unaware of soy until Chinese and Japanese restaurants introduced tofu in the mid 1900s. Initial reactions were often unimpressed but attitudes shifted once the health merits of soy caught mainstream attention.

Nowadays, Paris enclaves feature vegetarian restaurants starring soy. Top chefs incorporate it into gourmet meat replicas and faux cheeses, with soy cream frothing “cheese” cake. The UK’s own Heston Blumenthal, owner of the three-Michelin-starred The Fat Duck, has developed an ingenious line of meatless soy-based meals. 

Soy milk has also overtaken Europe’s beverage scene. Once a hippie health drink, it’s now served in coffeehouse lattes tagged as “soy magic”. Even in pasta-loving Italy, tofu raviolis in sage cream sauce have enchanted local palates. With growing approval from food authorities, soy cuisine looks poised to win over more European taste buds.

Americas: Global Fusion

Like Europe, the West first encountered soy from Asian immigrants and returning explorers. Initially, Chinese immigrants popularized tofu on North America’s west coast in the late 1800s. But things really accelerated when returning WWII GIs spread a taste for Asian cuisine across the United States. 

Also, health movements of the 1960s made soy milk a best-selling health food, later crossing over into mainstream appeal. Then in the 1980s-90s, soy protein powders bulked up bodybuilder meal plans. Thereafter, soy’s reputation for health and fitness fueled its integration into American kitchens.

South America has also fallen for soy – Brazil is currently the second top producer! Much South American soy feeds its booming meat industry. Yet in Argentina, vegetarianism is rising, and soy accompanies their traditional empanadas and locro stew. With meatless lifestyles gaining traction globally, soy looks set to assert itself as the protein of the future.

The Final Word

Just a few centuries ago, soy was an obscure Asian crop. Now through global cultural exchange, it has transformed into an international cuisine star. As the world continually reinvents and shares ideas, who knows what other undiscovered superfoods await out there? We can’t predict the future – but we bet soy will be there leading the way!

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