Japanese Dishes Made from Soybeans

   Soybeans are so rich in nutritional value, they are known as the “meat of the field” in Japan. Soybeans have been cultivated in Japan since ancient times. The many dishes made using soybeans as one of their ingredients have supported Japanese people’s diets since long ago. Soybean dishes are a familiar part of daily life in Japan, and are drawing attention recently among people with a strong awareness regarding health. For example, miso and soy sauce are particularly iconic seasonings from Japan, and tofu is another Japanese food that is used in a variety of dishes. Soybean dishes let you get good-quality protein at low calories, making them popular with people who want to lose weight, and with vegans who do not eat meat, fish, eggs, or other animal products. This article looks at some examples of soybean dishes in Japan.

The History of Soybeans and What They Mean to Japanese People

Images created in 1877 showing soy sauce being made in a traditional style.
Noda Shoyu Jozo no Zu (A Picture of Soy Sauce Brewing in Noda)

Shimousa no Kuni Shoyu Seizo no Zu (A Picture of Soy Sauce Production in Shimousa Province) (From Dainihon Bussan Zue (Pictures of Famous Products from Japan)).
(Photos provided by Kikkoman)

   Soybeans have been eaten in Japan since the BC years. It is thought that soybean cultivation spread in Japan from continental China along with rice cultivation in the Yayoi period (about 300 BC—250 AD). The Kojiki (“Records of Ancient Matters,” 712 AD) and Nihon Shoki (“The Chronicles of Japan,” 720 AD) feature passages that describe soybeans to be one of the five ancient main grains in Japan. Buddhism spread in Japan, and because of the rule in Buddhism against killing living things, people avoided eating meat for a long time. Owing to this, people ate soybeans as a precious source of protein instead of meat. Warriors in the Kamakura period (1185—1333 AD) used “Ichiju Issai (one bowl of miso soup and one side dish)” as the basis for eating. Japanese people did not eat much meat even in the Edo period (1603—1868 AD), and so soybeans (known as the “meat of the field” in Japan) with their high nutritional value supported Japanese people in developing their physiques. It is said that the Edo period was when miso soup and tofu became regular choices as the food of the common people, and when soy sauce production became prosperous.

Japanese Foods Made Using Soybeans

Miso paste and miso soup. (Photos provided by Marukome)

Images showing miso being made in a traditional style.
Miso paste is put into large wooden tubs for it to mature and develop a rich flavor. (Photos provided by the Japan Miso Promotion Board)

Top left: Steaming barley. Top right: Heavy stones are placed on the lids of wooden tubs to ferment and mature the miso paste.
Bottom left: A special room for growing koji is maintained at a specific temperature and humidity level. In this room, the koji yeast is being grown on barley. Bottom right: Mitsuura Barley Miso produced by Mitsuura Jozo in Yamaguchi Prefecture. (Photos provided by Mitsuura Jozo)

   Miso is made by mixing steamed or boiled soybeans with koji and salt, and then leaving the mixture to mature for a period of a few days to one year, or even longer. There are several major types of miso based on the type of koji used as an ingredient to promote fermentation: rice miso, barley miso, soybean miso, and blended miso (a mixture of the three other types of miso). Through this process, the soybeans or other ingredients change and produce a rich-flavored miso with a mellow, full-bodied flavor with umami. Miso also features different blends of ingredients and different tastes depending on the region, and there are many different types of miso. Because of this, the variety of miso is said to be part of its appeal. Miso soup is the typical dish made with miso, and it is made by boiling together with a wide range of ingredients such as tofu, vegetables, meat, seafood, or potatoes. Miso soup is both nutritious and delicious, and so it is well-loved on a regular basis as an accompaniment to rice that people never grow tired of.

Miso soup with clams, a dish that goes well with rice. (Photos provided by Marukome)

   Soy sauce is a traditional fermented seasoning, and it is a fundamental element of Japanese food. Soy sauce is made by first mixing steamed soybeans with roasted wheat, adding koji malt to this mixture to make koji, then putting this koji along with saltwater in a barrel to create Moromi (unrefined soy sauce). The Moromi is shaken multiple times, left to rest for about six to eight months, and then pressed to produce soy sauce. Soy sauce ferments and matures through the activity of koji yeast and other microorganisms, giving it a well-balanced flavor with each of the five basic tastes: sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness, and umami. It has up to 300 different flavor components, helping to highlight the great taste of food. Soy sauce has a fragrant aroma and suits any kind of Japanese dish. You can enjoy a more complex, rich smell and flavor by boiling or roasting fish, meat, and vegetables with it.

Left and top right: Soy sauce goes well with sashimi and sushi. It also serves as a spice to eliminate the odor of fish. (Photos provided by Kikkoman)
Bottom right: Soy sauce is a highly versatile seasoning that can create a richer flavor by mixing it with condiments like green onion or ginger. The matured, fragrant aroma of soy sauce stands out strongly when sprinkled on chilled tofu, and so these two ingredients go very well together. Chilled tofu is enjoyed by people in the summer, when their appetites are not as strong as usual.

   Tofu is a food made by processing soybeans. First, soymilk is made by putting soybeans in water, cooking them, and then filtering the mixture. Then, the soymilk is mixed with Nigari (bittern) or another curdling agent to make it solid. Tofu has a distinctive smooth and soft texture, and it is common in Japanese cuisine to eat miso soup with tofu in it for breakfast. Tofu lets you enjoy the rich taste of soybeans with only simple seasoning. Tofu is typically served raw as Hiyayakko (chilled tofu), or after boiling with stock from seaweed and other ingredients to just the right temperature to warm you up as Yudofu (boiled tofu). Tofu can be fried on its surface to make Atsuage-dofu (deep-fried tofu)—a popular ingredient in boiled dishes and hotpots because of its strong ability to absorb the flavor of stock and other ingredients.

Another point of appeal with tofu dishes is the rich selection of choices available, such as Atsuage-dofu (deep-fried tofu), Abura-age (thinly sliced fried tofu), Okara (soy pulp), tofu, and Gan-modoki (deep-fried tofu mash containing sliced vegetables and other ingredients).

U no Hana, a dish made using Okara (soy pulp).

Hiyayakko (chilled tofu).

Yudofu (boiled tofu). (Photos provided by Zentouren)

   Natto (fermented soybeans) is another traditional Japanese soybean dish. Natto is generally mixed with green onions or other condiments as well as a soy-sauce-based dressing and eggs or other ingredients, and then stirred well to increase the stickiness of the natto before putting it on warm rice for breakfast. When served in this way, you can enjoy the fundamental rich and sweet flavor within soybeans. Some people do not like the sticky texture of natto, but many Japanese people eat it on a daily basis as a health habit, because the beans have a lot of fiber and nutrients when eaten whole.

Natto made by fermenting soybeans with natto bacteria. (Photos provided by Marukome)

   Japan is known for its long average life expectancy, and Japanese dishes made from soybeans have been a deep-rooted part of the country’s culture since long ago. Why not try including some of these dishes yourself for a healthy diet?