My memories of soy are tied to color: the burnt-brown gleam of soy sauce on fried rice, the chalk-white of milk, the green of a bean balanced between my grandmother’s chopsticks, and the anis-black broth for stewing eggs.
My grandfather often made tea eggs. They emerged from the broth steaming, thick with spice and dark with soy and black tea. He always served them in a bowl, half-drowned in their broth.
On my eleventh birthday, my mother gave me a set of white Calvin Klein pajamas (it was 1997). My grandfather placed a bowl of tea eggs on the table, and no sooner had I lifted an egg than it slipped back into the broth, splattering my new pajamas indelible brown. Every time I wore them after that, I could think only of that moment: the slip, the splash, the regret, fleeting.
It was often like this: It was in food that I first learned about pleasure, and I rushed toward the sensations of eating. I wanted soy milk with the texture of velvet, slightly sweet and beany. I drank it hot before bed, cold in the summer, out of tetra-packed juice boxes on long journeys. Tofu: crisp and salted, or swollen with garlic sauce. Wobbling blocks of bean curd, which Mom would cube and cook with Chinese noodles for weekend lunches.
I gave little thought to the bean at the center of this story, which in the forms I knew it—as tofu, as sauce, as brittle sheets of dòufupí (bean curd skin) used for wrapping parcels of mushroom and bamboo, as milk and comfort—seemed to have nothing to do with the yellow-green fields stretching across southern Ontario where I grew up.
The wild soybean’s route to domestication is a contested one, tied to nationalist claims from both China and Korea. In the region where northeastern China meets the Korean peninsula, some three to five thousand years ago, a bushy, twining plant we now call Glycine max became prized for its ability to improve soil. In the staple trinity of local diets—soy, millet, wheat—the beans worked a kind of magic: as fertilizer, protein, sauce, milk, and grain.
Soy became entwined with culture, with health, and with imagination for nearly every culture across Asia. In the Chinese Classic of Poetry (1046–761 BCE), the bean is the subject of verse: “Gather beans, gather beans, in crates, in baskets.” Ancient Chinese verses liken blocks of tofu to jade, and pools of tofu pudding to snow. In the centuries that followed, a handful of odes to tofu would be written, as well as medicinal tracts on the virtues of soybean porridge, of fermented bean paste, and their derivative sauces.
Soy became entwined with culture, with health, and with imagination for nearly every culture across Asia.
The Japanese Shintō story of Ukemochi no Kami tells of when the Sun Goddess sent her brother, the Moon God, to visit Ukemochi no Kami, the Goddess of Food. She welcomed him, producing a feast from her body: rice, fish, and meat disgorged from her mouth. Insulted that she’d presented him with regurgitated food, the Moon God killed her. From her body sprouted all the staple foods: millet from her eyebrows, rice from her belly, and from her genitals, soy. Soybeans were linked to life itself.
A decade ago, I asked my grandmother to tell me about her childhood. So much had gone unspoken; we didn’t want to ask her about Nanjing and what she’d endured there during the war. She’d left China and her family in 1949, fled to Taiwan, and has never been able to return.
I knew next to nothing about her: nothing of her family or the ground out of which she’d grown into this world. So one afternoon, I set up a recorder and asked my mother to help translate. It was then that I learned that my grandmother’s family—among other things—had once been manufacturers of soy sauce. That soybeans were at the heart of our family: not simply as flavor and depth in our dishes, but as an income that sustained my ancestors’ livelihoods.
She described girlhood visits to the factory and its outdoor courtyard, lined with rows of enormous clay urns filled with fermenting beans. “They were so heavy it took two men to lift them,” she said, miming their motions with frail arms.
I wondered then what smells she might have known, what flavors. Did she count the months before the beans fermented into salted elixir? She told me she’d looked on impatiently at beans growing rich with mold atop woven trays; peered beneath the lids of the urns to glimpse the beans at work. How did the sauce they made taste? How deep a brown was its color?
That soy is central to Chinese life and culture is reflected in language. In Mandarin, when it comes to 黃豆 (huángdòu, yellow bean) it’s often enough to just say 豆 (dòu, bean). The words for soy milk—豆漿 or 豆奶(dòujiāng or dòunǎi)—simply mean bean pulp or bean milk. Tofu is simply 豆腐 (dòufu, beancurd). Where other beans are identified by their color—綠豆 (lǜdòu, green/mung bean) or 紅豆 (hóngdòu, red/azuki bean)—the soybean stands as the meaning and measure of a bean.
The word in English, by contrast, is a product of colonial expansion. “Soy” and “soya” come from Dutch, which takes the word from “shoyu,” Japanese for soy sauce. The Dutch held trading posts in Japan and across East Asia from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth.
But the beans themselves took a long time to reach North America and Europe. Interest in soy began to grow at the end of the 19th century, but this didn’t mean a boom in tofu or miso production in the West.
Soy beans entered global trade in 1908 driven by the growing market for oil crops. In 1917, the United States Department of Agriculture sent “plant explorers,” including the Chinese-American scientist Yamei Kin, in search of a soybean suited for American farms on an industrial scale. After that, soy importing in Europe and production in the US expanded hugely, particularly during the Second World War. Soy oil’s culinary use freed up other glycerin-rich tropical oils for the manufacture of weapons and explosives. The United States now grows more soy than any other country in the world—still mostly used for oil and livestock feed—and by 2010, 93% of these soybeans were genetically modified.
Soy in the West has thus been inextricably linked to the technological imaginaries of the twentieth century: as an object of processing, as a crop selected and modified, as myriad non-culinary uses. Soy meant oil and animal fodder. Margarine and soap. In the 1930s, Henry Ford opened a soybean research laboratory to craft plastics, car frames, and trunks from soybeans.
These beans, stripped of their vitality somehow, seem a far cry from the food so central to Chinese poetry and Japanese legends. In a recent essay on tofu pudding, Nina Mingya Powles writes, “The Cambridge Dictionary definition of tofu reads: ‘a soft, pale food that has very little flavour but is high in protein, made from the seed of the soya plant.’ I feel sad for the person who wrote this.”
These beans, stripped of their vitality somehow, seem a far cry from the food so central to Chinese poetry and Japanese legends.
That Western eaters have repeatedly positioned tofu as bland is a product of concentrated efforts to render this precious food unappealing. In the 1920s, German oil mills processed soy in huge quantities—separating oil from the “soy cake” that was turned into livestock feed. Historian Ines Prodöhl writes that “consuming soybeans in an Asian manner—in tofu, for example—would have meant an end to separating the oil from the protein.” And so these mills actively shaped the public image of soy through advertising: To protect their trade, they cast tofu and other Asian soy foods, which used the whole bean, as inconvenient and unpalatable to Europeans.
In the US over the past two decades, dietary advice and xenophobia have too often crossed currents. While soy gained popularity as a cholesterol-free, nutrient-rich source of protein, campaigners against soy framed it as a dangerous “propaganda food” and, following a series of problematic studies, as a source of all manner of ailments, from Alzheimer’s to breast cancer. That these studies had low sample sizes and often did not differentiate between highly-processed soy (as in additives or powders) and whole or fermented foods gave skeptics little pause. Rumors cut across racial and gender lines, built on stereotypes and patriarchal fears: Dairy advocates argued that Asians were short because they drank soy instead of cow’s milk, and some claimed the amount of estrogen contained in the beans might effeminize unsuspecting boys and cause “sexual confusion.” In alt-right parlance, a “soy boy” is an effeminate weakling; real dairy stands in for racial and sexual purity.
The gap in framing and flavor between this crop—for in North America, “crop” seems an apt term—and the cream-sweet soy I know from childhood is wide. For many years, I sensed it but could not describe it: why Silk wasn’t at all what I knew soymilk to be (a subject meticulously unpacked by Clarissa Wei in her essay, “How America Killed Soymilk”); why when “health conscious” friends adhering to meat-heavy fad diets tried to warn me off tofu, it felt more like a microaggression than it did concern for my well-being. Why eating soy, at times, feels like the most powerful expression of my family’s identity.
While I write this, I soak beans. They swell and burst in their hours of submersion. I boil them, pulse them, strain them for milk. I’ve learned to make something that replicates that childhood comfort. I sip it warm, fresh from the stove.
Tofu and soymilk are foods that take time, but they do not demand enormous knowledge or skill. I learned from a recipe online and making them has offered some solace. I watch videos of Li Ziqi harvesting soybeans in the field, freeing them from their fuzzy green pods, grinding them into pulp. Thinking about soybeans, for me, has become a kind of dreaming. The jars of beans my grandmother described are long in the distance and the past. But I want those sensations still: the grit of salt on bean, the softening of a pulse to pulp.
In the past sixteen years, I have moved house more times than I can count, moved countries and continents. I am reaching my mid-thirties, and I simply want time and space. As much as I want a child or a family, I want to learn to make soy sauce. I don’t know if the skill is in my bones or if my palate is sharp enough to measure the nuances of fermentation.
I want to know that I will be in one place long enough to begin the process and see it through. I dream of a home where I can fill jars with soybeans. I want to stir them every three days for months. Until one day I can lift the lid and witness something—a scent, a flavor—that my grandmother might have known well.
Jessica J. Lee is a British-Canadian-Taiwanese author, environmental historian, and winner of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, the Banff Mountain Book Award, the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature, and the RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer Award. She is the author of two books of nature writing, Turning and Two Trees Make a Forest, and co-editor of the essay collection Dog Hearted. Jessica has a PhD in Environmental History and Aesthetics and is the founding editor of The Willowherb Review. She teaches creative writing at the University of Cambridge.