YOU MIGHT THINK of me as the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of vegetables.
I am a super-healthy meat alternative and nitrogen-fixing, soil- improving wonder crop. Yet I, soybean, am also tied to world wars, one of history’s worst poisons, and deforestation and climate change—an agricultural monster incarnate. So am I primarily good or bad? Let me tell my story, and I’ll let you decide.
First, the good: I am a delicious little package of nutrition that you can eat green, snappy, and salted (as with edamame, in those fuzzy bean pods), dried as a crunchy snack, or ground and processed into soy milk, tofu, or delightful tofu skins called yuba. I hide in endless American foods, including veggie burgers, soy cream cheese, soy nut butters and cheeses, and egg substitutes. (I’m also regularly found in less-healthy processed foods such as packaged baked goods and crackers.)
I’m essential in various Asian cuisines, as soy sauce, of course, and soybean pastes such as Japanese miso, Korean doenjang, and Chinese doubanjiang. In Japan they eat me fermented as slimy, wonderfully funky natto, while in China a different fermentation process turns me into the deeply salty, savory beans critical to black bean sauce. And don’t forget soybean oil, which is the second-most-used vegetable oil in the world, outranked only by palm oil.
Yet the first known mention of me to reach the New World wasn’t until 1770, when Ben Franklin wrote a letter from London to a friend in Philadelphia, excitedly describing what he called “Chinese cheese” made from “Chinese Garavances.” They called chickpeas garavances back then, so his characterization was a sign of his utter lack of familiarity with me.
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