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Fusion: A Culinary Journey


By Peter Gordon

Published 2010

I am a huge fan of the soy bean’s various guises, from the delicate subtlety of freshly made silken tofu, through to the rich saltiness of miso and the crunch and freshness of edamame (fresh soy beans). I drink soy milk more than I do regular cow’s milk, and I get annoyed with myself if I’ve run out of tamari (a wheat-free soy sauce, generally made by smaller producers) at home as I think it really does add a wonderful edge to food, especially stews and braises - fermented soy products are credited with being high in the Japanese fifth flavour sensation they call umami. When I was growing up the only soy product we knowingly ate was Chinese soy sauce, usually very dark, salty and quite bitter. However, what my family didn’t know, as food labelling laws were quite different then, is that soy is used in many processed foods, just like maize and corn, and so we were probably eating it unwittingly in ice cream and margarine, amongst other things, and it’s likely that the soap we bathed with may have contained it as soy bean-based oils are prolific in food and commercial usage throughout the Western world.

When I moved to Australia, I really got stuck into soy in a big way. I discovered a love for the flavour and sensation of fermented soy products such as miso, soy sauce (whether it be dark Chinese, rich Japanese shoyu or wheat-free tamar from Japan) and tempeh. I found that soy milk was a brilliant alternative to dairy milk, which had always caused my nose to run, and this meant I could drink café lattes and flat whites and not feel blocked up afterwards. I developed a lasting appreciation for tofu after sampling some freshly made tofu at a wonderful Japanese restaurant and I tried to enjoy the delights of natto (a Japanese fermented soy product which looks like lumpy slime). Finally, in 2008, I ate some in Japan with my friends Akilco and Yoshi and I enjoyed it. The one product I’ve had equal difficulty with is TVP (textured vegetable protein) but I think this is a visual problem based on seeing it formed into the shape of lamb chops and sausages over 25 years ago. I have no issue with people who choose not to eat meat, but I just can’t get my head around a vegetarian or vegan wanting to eat a meat-free product made in the image of a cutlet.

Soy beans originated in central China around 5000 years ago and have been used not just for the production of food and oil. It was discovered early on that if other arable crops were rotated with soy beans (and other legumes), the soil appeared to become enlivened. This is due to the legume family being able to ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil. As time moved on, numerous foods were created from the seeds, which grow inside the hairy pods. As the plant moved through Southern and Eastern Asia into Korea, Vietnam and Japan, and into India, Thailand and Burma, soy, soy milk, tofu, tempeh, fermented bean curd, salted black beans, fermented yellow beans and so much more came to enter various cuisines. In America (where much of the world’s crop is grown) and Europe, soy beans are used in far more subtle ways - mainly for their oil, and the remaining husks and pith are used as stock-feed.

Soybeans are also incredibly nutritious, containing decent amounts of all the essential amino acids required by humans and they provide a great alternative to meat-based protein, which is great for the developing world. They have, however, also come under a lot of criticism. The majority of soy beans grown in the United States are genetically modified, and as such they, and their by-products, cannot be imported into Europe. Also, they are being used in the production of bio fuels, and as such their extensive growth in Brazil is being partly blamed on deforesting the Amazon.
I’ll keep eating them though, in all their various unmodified forms, as I think they are one of the wonder-foods of a modern pantry.

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