Soy has been a staple in Asian diets for centuries. But just a couple of decades ago, only committed vegetarians here ate tempeh or tofu. Back then, Americans had to venture to health-food stores to buy soy foods. And finding easy, tasty recipes that called for items such as edamame or soy flour was a challenge.
That's all changed. The creaminess of tofu, the meaty texture of tempeh, the saltiness of miso, and the nutty crunch of edamame are so mainstream these days that most of us have learned to love soy for what it is. We can be up front with it, no longer sneaking it into recipes in place of something else, or serving it solely as a meat substitute.
Served in Japanese restaurants and now offered in many supermarkets, these sweet, bright green soybeans are delicious served in the pod or shelled, like baby limas. The Chinese call edamame mao dao, or "hair bean," because of the fuzz on their plump, sugar snap pea-sized pods. Originally from China and imported to Japan by the 10th century, the Japanese named them edamame, meaning "branch bean," which describes how they grow.
Edamame are not a variety of soybean. They are immature soybeans that are picked green and served fresh. In season, usually from late July to September, you might find fresh edamame at local farmers' markets. Frozen, they are available year-round, both in the pod and shelled. For a snack, boil edamame in the pod, drain, and sprinkle with coarse salt.
Yellow and Black Soybeans
As soybeans mature, they ripen into hard, dry beans. Though most mature soybeans are yellow, there are also black varieties. These dried beans require an overnight soak and about three hours of cooking time to make them tender. Canned yellow or black soybeans, usually found on the organic food aisle, are a fast alternative. They have a slippery texture and firm bite. Yellow soybeans require assertive seasoning to enhance their bland taste; black soybeans, however, can stand alone in salads and side dishes. Both are good in chili, stews, and soups, and pureed for dip. Rinse canned beans before using.
No one is sure when the Chinese began making tofu (soybean curd) or how they figured out the process, but tomb paintings from a.d. 220 show it being made. In European writing, the Japanese word tofu first appeared in 1603. Today, you find this traditional neutral-tasting soy food in nearly every U.S. supermarket.
Tofu is good in Asian stir-fries, desserts, drinks, dressings, salads, stews, and soups. It's also good tossed on the grill. It varies in texture from creamy and smooth to firm enough to slice. Today, tofu also is sold marinated and smoked, or flavored with such seasonings as teriyaki or garlic and herbs. Selecting the right kind is the key to good tofu dishes.
• Silken (Kinugoshi, or Japanese-style): Sold in aseptic boxes and available in soft, firm, and extrafirm textures, silken tofu is custardlike and ideal to puree for dressings, soups, desserts, and drinks. It's much too delicate to grill, sauté, or stir-fry.
• Regular (Momen, or Chinese-style): Also found in soft, firm, and extrafirm textures, this tofu is packed in water in plastic tubs and pouches. Its dense texture makes it ideal to sauté, grill, or broil. Choose soft, water-packed tofu for scrambling and to use in spreads, thick dips, and some desserts; select firm for grilling, sautéing, and stir-frying. Squeezing, pressing, and freezing can enhance tofu's texture.