Beans come in all shapes and sizes, a wide range of colours, and provide a whole world of taste sensation. Some, like channa dhal (chickpeas, gram, garbanzos) or moong beans, are known almost the world over. Others are virtually unknown outside the areas where they are grown. Until recently, soybeans were almost unheard of outside China, Korea and Japan where they have been the main basis of the people's diet for centuries. Then America and Australia took to growing them in enormous quantities, recognising these white, oval beans as a cheap, good-quality feed for their cattle, sheep and other commercial livestock. Over the last twenty years or so their fame has grown, and many nutritionists are now hailing soybeans as the food of the future - not for animals but for humans.
Unfortunately, when people think of soybeans, they have visions of animal fodder, not fit for human consumption, or - perhaps worse - of the cans of 'artificial meat' that are sold in some shops under the guise of vegetarian health foods. Outside East Asia, cooks are ignorant of the gourmet potential of soybeans, and their use has been severely limited by lack of education and imagination.
Soybeans may be boiled, baked or roasted whole and go well with various cereals and vegetables, especially cabbage and tomatoes. They can be served with cheese, or they can even be curried with turmeric, chilli and mango chutney. In their whole form they are a treasure trove of high - quality protein, but even more protein is liberated when they are processed. Soya flour, for instance, may be used in baking.
However, the two main soybean products are tofu and miso. Both have been used in many ways for centuries in Japanese kitchens, setting a distinctive mark of fine flavour on the entire panorama of Japanese cuisine and adding zest to a diet that has long consisted primarily of grains and vegetables.
Tofu is soybean cheese, also known as soybean curd. It is made by fermenting soybeans in water overnight and using the resulting 'milk' to make cheese in cakes of about twelve ounces each. It is white in colour and varies in consistency from very soft soymilk curds (tofu pudding) through the creamy smoothness of, say, cream cheese, to very firmly pressed cakes. Nutritionally, tofu has much the same importance for the people of East Asia that dairy products, eggs and meat have in the west, or that dhal has for Indians.
There are seven types available in Japan - more in China - and each one has its own characteristic texture and flavour. Regular tofu is quite thick, and medium firm. The two main variations are kinugoshi, made from relatively thick soymilk, and age made from very thin soymilk. Tofu is prepared by a process that carefully removes the crude fibre and water-soluble carbohydrates from soybeans, and is far more easily digested than the whole beans. It is thus excellent for the very young or the very old, or for those with digestive problems.
Miso is fermented soybean paste. It has a deep, rich favour and contains a lot of salt. It is used very sparingly - not more than several tablespoons per person per day - very much as we use salt or spices. Its texture is very soft, like peanut butter or firm cottage cheese. There are six basic types of miso, and many variations on these. The most popular kinds are rice barley and soybean miso. The first two are made from soybeans, salt and the respective grain; the last is made from soybeans and salt alone.
Both tofu and miso can be made at home easily and cheaply, but in Japan they are mostly prepared in special shops, similar to the tiny local bakery or wine-cellar in Europe. A day's tofu making begins the night before when the raw beans are washed and placed in water to soak. Early next morning, around three but not later than five o'clock, the tofu maker and his wife start work. A press extracts milk from the soybean fibre (okara) and is then heated in a caldron. Different substances, all natural, are added to make it solidify and then it is poured into settling boxes and barrels of wood. When ready it is cooled in huge sinks of cold water. The tofu is sold fresh in small cakes, or it may be deep-fried by the tofu master's wife. Apprentices help in the preparation, cleaning and attendance of customers who come to the shop window. The shop often remains open well after the evening meal, but the family retires early in preparation for the next day.
While three or more batches of tofu are made daily, miso production takes from one to three years. To prepare rice miso, for instance, rice is soaked overnight, drained and steamed. Cooled to body temperature, it is mixed with a small amount of 'starter' mould and set in wooden trays to ferment. Within two days it is covered with a sweet - smelling white mould. This fermented grain (koji) is then combined with cooked soybeans, some of the liquid they were cooked in, salt and some mature miso from an early batch.
The ingredients are mashed together (traditionally underfoot, like wine), placed in wooden vats, and covered with a tight lid. At once enzymes set to work, breaking down the complex proteins and other nutrients into simpler forms. Bacteria transform the simple sugars into organic acids which give the unique flavour to miso and prevent spoilage. The yeasts break down into alcohols which react with the acids to produce esters, giving miso its fine bouquet. Over time, the sharpness of the salt is mellowed by the other ingredients and the colour of the mixture changes from its initial yellow or light tan to rich shades of brown. The savoury, dark misos take up to three years to mature but the light - coloured sweet varieties are ready in about a year.
Whereas western craftsmen fermented milk to form cheese and yoghurt, in the East they fermented grains. It is the process of fermentation that is the secret to making miso and tofu.
Whole soybeans yield only a portion of their food value, but through the process of natural fermentation they undergo a total biochemical transformation. Both miso and tofu contain a number of enzymes and 'friendly' bacteria that continue their work of breaking down nutrients by aiding digestion within the human body. in miso it is the koji mould that begins this alchemical process; in tofu it is the lacto - bacillus that forms the milk. Fermentation not only makes food more digestible. It improves flavour, aroma and texture, as well as enabling the food to be preserved without refrigeration.
The same principle is used in India to make pakhal or basi bhat. Boiled rice left over from a meal is placed in a container and covered with water. A small amount of curd (dahi) is added to start the process, although this is not always necessary. The rice is then kept in a warm place for up to three days. When it has matured, he rice has a completely different taste, sometimes sharp, other times smooth and creamy. Chillies and spices may be fried and added, together with salt. This preparation is regarded as quite a delicacy - one that is both tasty and good for health.
When we talk about protein we must consider just how much protein in any food can be used by the body. Researchers have worked out the NPU score (Net Protein Utilisation) that tells us how much protein we can absorb from different foods, and it provides an easy way of comparing their relative merits. Whole soybeans have an NPU of 61 which compares very favourably with that of meat (67) and chicken (65).
Soybeans are one of the few foodstuffs that improve with processing, and we find that tofu has an NPU of 65, which means that, to the body, protein in tofu is exactly the same as protein in chicken. The amino acid arrangement in tofu is also very similar to that of milk.
Miso has NPU ratings of up to 72, higher than any of the ingredients used in its making. The protein pattern of soybeans in combination with rice or barley produces a new pattern that is more useful to the body. Miso contains all eight essential amino acids, and nine others, making it one of our richest protein sources, on a par with other 'first class' proteins.
By combining foods with complementary amino acid patterns, we can make much more protein available to the body at no extra cost. The protein pattern of tofu and miso have exactly the opposite strengths and weaknesses of the pattern in grains, especially wheat, corn and rice. When combined with these foods, tofu and miso act as protein boosters, and can increase the NPU of a meal by up to forty percent.
For protein alone tofu and miso are to be praised but they have the added advantage of being low in calories and saturated fats, and they are entirely free of cholesterol.
The body needs some fats, preferably unsaturated and these are provided by tofu (4.3%) and miso (5%). Their unrefined oils contribute to the favour, and are rich in lecithin and linoleic acid. These two substances actually help break up deposits of fat in vital organs and the blood stream, making a positive contribution to those who suffer from overweight and heart disease.
Those vegetarians who do not take dairy products run the risk of being deficient in calcium and vitamin B12, but they will find tofu and miso excellent supplements. Tofu contains fifty percent more calcium than cow's milk, and is a good source of iron, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, vitamin E and the B-group vitamins. Miso is also rich in vitamins and minerals, but is particularly strong in vitamin B12.
The different kinds of miso and tofu are ready to eat, without further cooking. However, they can form the basis of many a tasty meal that requires only a few minutes preparation. Tofu may be eaten chilled, or as ganmo - deep-fried tofu balls containing minced vegetables. Ganmo can be bought on the streets of Japan just as samosa and pakoura are in India. Tofu is the basis of traditional Japanese cuisine. Many families combine it with vegetables and serve it daily with rice. The protein-rich combination of tofu and wheat suggests tofu on sandwiches or even chapati.
Miso is traditionally enjoyed as a soup. It is added, a few spoons at a time, to sauces, dressings and casseroles. It is used as chutney and an accompaniment grains and fresh vegetables, as a spread on sandwiches and as a preservative for pickles.
The breakdown and reassembly of the ingredients In miso and tofu are a reflection of our environment, linked to the water, air, warmth and the seasonal variations that assist the bacteria in their work. Miso and tofu are actually living cultures which give off by products beneficial to the human digestive system.
The Japanese masters of tofu and miso were not chemists or nutritionists, yet they have created foods which totally support the healthy and harmonious consumption of a vegetable and grain-based diet. Although the Japanese are well aware of the nutritional value of miso and tofu, they prize them even more for properties that are not easily defined or measured, but are believed to promote good health and long life. After centuries of experimentation using intuitive and systematic methods based on a holistic view of life, people have found that eating miso and tofu together with a diet low in animal foods is an effective way to improve one's physical constitution and internal environment. Certainly the Japanese suffer less from overweight, cancer and heart disease - maladies that afflict other industrial nations on a meat - centred diet. For centuries, Japanese Buddhist monks have eaten no animal products, but have enjoyed miso and tofu regularly. They are renowned for their good health, vigour and longevity. Tofu and miso can play an increasingly important part in the cookery and nutrition of people all over the world. Perhaps we should take a lesson from the Japanese and learn how to get the most out of soybeans as a means of getting the most out of life.