What came first the soybean or tofu?

The answer to the question in the title is simple. Soybeans came first. Tofu-making was first recorded during China’s Han dynasty more than 2,000 years ago. Chinese legend credits its invention to Prince Liu An (179–122 BC).

We learn from Soya.be that “Soybeans originate from China. In 2853 BC, Emperor Sheng-Nung of China named five sacred plants – soybeans, rice, wheat, barley, and millet. Soybean plants were domesticated between 17th and 11th century BC in the eastern half of China where they were cultivated into a food crop.”

And Eating China reports, “But while those ancient farmers had discovered a new food source, only their descendants, almost 1,000 years in the future would begin to fully understand the nutritional value of the soybean. The long history of domestication resulted in a great variety of upright hardy soy plants that do well in a wide range of soil and weather conditions. The main types of soybeans are categorized by seed color: green, black and by far the most common, yellow, the variety that inspired the bean’s other name, Yellow Legume, Huang Dou.” …

“Making soy milk was one of the early methods. Soy milk is nothing more than a milky liquid that results from boiling and mashing whole beans, so we can assume that it was not long before soy milk was ‘invented.’ Initially it may have been eaten as bean meal soup. Even today in China soy milk remains a drink that is processed and consumed in simple ways, though it is often sweetened and occasionally salted.”

I can attest that fresh soy milk in China is much better than most soy milk you buy in supermarkets in the United States. When visiting China, I get up early to go to the nearest market that makes fresh soy juice and buy it without sugar or sweetener added. There is no comparison. It’s warm. It’s fresh. It’s China. It’s different from the genetically altered, American, factory-farmed soy juice sold in American markets. That stuff is “yuk” and I don’t touch it.

I’ve even made tofu chocolate pie at home. The Chinese invented tofu, but I was introduced to Chocolate Tofu Pie at Mother’s Market in Costa Mesa, California. Then I figured out how to make it at home by experimenting. You may find the recipe HERE.

Then there is stinky tofu, another of my favorites. When visiting Nanjing Road in Shanghai between People Square and the Bund, we always stop at the same shop, and I order deep fried, fresh chou dofu (stinky tofu) with peppercorn sauce that’s spicy hot enough to make me sweat.

Medical News Today.com says, “Tofu is made from soybean curds. It is naturally gluten-free and low in calories. It contains no cholesterol and is an excellent source of iron and calcium.” It is also an important source of protein, especially for vegans and vegetarians. “It also contains isoflavones such as phytoestrogens. Isoflavones may have both estrogen-agonist or estrogen-antagonist properties. These may help protect against some cancers, heart disease, and osteoporosis.”

Then there are the health benefits from soybean sprouts. Livestrong.com says, “Even though you can sprout seeds from any type of bean, the two most common types are mung bean and soybean sprouts, according to the University of Florida IFAS Extension. Bean sprouts give you an easy way to boost the nutrients in your diet. Toss them onto your salad, use them in a sandwich or add them to soups and casseroles, and you’ll quickly increase the amount of protein, B vitamins and vitamin C.”

In fact, the Chinese learned how to sprout beans on their sailing ships to protect Chinese sailors from scurvy long before the west discovered that vitamin C prevented the disease. Our Everyday Life.com says, “Soy bean sprouts, which are germinated soy beans, have been used for human consumption for more than 5,000 years.” Just one of the benefits: “Soy bean sprouts provide the B vitamin, folate, which is essential for the synthesis of DNA and red blood cells. One cup of raw soy bean sprouts has 120mcg of folate. Adults need 400mcg of folate daily, according to the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine. Soy bean sprouts are also a source of vitamin C and pantothenic acid.”

Soy bean sprouts were not the only source of vitamin C for ancient Chinese sailors. Asian cultures have relied on fermented cabbage to survive long winters between fruit seasons for thousands of years. Kimchi, sauerkraut’s Korean cousin, was historically used during winter to stave off vitamin deficiencies, while early records show workers building the Great Wall of China ate fermented cabbage regularly when fruit was not available.

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.

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