Things Japan Is Good At, Part 2: Ode to Soy

My mother insists that overconsumption of soy makes you go crazy.  She likes to cite my Great Aunt Greta (or some such distant relative) who evidenced the soy insanity theory by switching to soy milk, going crazy, switching back, then regaining her wits.  I counter by saying that the Japanese eat soy beans in some form at nearly every meal.  Tofu, soy milk, miso soup, edamame—all are soy products consumed daily in Japan.  Given some of the posts I’ve written about Japanese culture, perhaps the verdict is still out on this debate.  Still, soy has grown to play a strong supporting role in my diet, so here is my Ode to Soy.


I think Americans are prejudice against tofu for many reasons: No one has any idea how to cook with it; it’s healthy; it has little taste but a very uncommon texture.  Also, the quality of tofu in the West pales in comparison to the gourmet versions available in Japan.  Tofu as it’s eaten in the US should not be used as a benchmark for tofu’s tastiness worldwide.  That would be like assuming 10¢/package Top Ramen approaches the taste and quality of recipes passed down over generations in Japan’s family-run ramen shops.  For those of you who’ve never eaten real ramen, maybe that image still doesn’t clarify things.  It’s like Europeans who think all hamburgers taste like its McDonald’s incarnation.

soft tofu and kimchi

Pre-fried tofu

Ever wonder how Asian restaurants make your pad thai with perfect tofu cubes, whilst every recipe you’ve fried tofu for has turned into a crumbly mess?  The answer is: Asian chefs know how to cheat better than you do.

pre-fried tofu (right) and pre-packaged stir-fry sauce


Soy Milk

Granted, plain soy milk on its own is an acquired taste, but it’s a taste you need not acquire in Japan.  What a panorama of flavors!  Also, if you’ve never had hot soy milk, do yourself a favor and give it a whirl.

vanilla ice cream, creme brule, black sesame and sweet red bean flavor

sweet potato, cocoa, black tea, almond and green tea flavors

citrus, strawberry, chestnut and banana flavors flavors

Soy soup broth

For the 50% of Japanese women who are not stay-at-home moms, nabe broth comes pre-packaged in a dozen flavors, like sesame soy milk.

sesame and soy nabe broth

sesame and soy nabe


A favored antipasto of trendsetters, health nuts and hipsters in the US, in Japan edamame is associated with gruff old men who drink beer, fart and watch sumo on TV.  The beans are usually paired with dried squid guts or other salty snacks to match the salty personalities of Japanese granddads.



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