Oh soy, oh soy

The traditional use of soy in cooking originated in the heartland of China. From there, it spread throughout East Asia. And then to Southeast Asia and South Asia. Soybeans only arrived in Europe in 1712. And they arrived in the U.S. in 1804.

This was at about the same time that rice came to the U.S. as a cash crop. After tobacco, rice first dominated plantation agriculture in the South during the 19th century. Initially, more so than cotton.

But today, soybeans outpace them all.

Soybeans are the biggest cash crops grown in the United States. And as I said yesterday, the way they’re grown and prepared in America, soybeans are just about the least healthy crop you can imagine.

But the Chinese culturally process their soybeans. This preserves their nutritive power. And it removes the soybeans’ anti-trypsin factor.

Extensive records show that Chinese honed these techniques over thousands of years. Initially, however, the Chinese grew soy as an agricultural plant. Not as a primary food crop.

Archaeological evidence from the New Stone Age shows that peoples in North China prepared their soybeans by roasting them. While this probably deactivated the anti-trypsin, the open flames degraded the amino acids in the soy protein. And this reduced their nutritional value.

Later, in the materia medica (or pharmacopeia) of the semi-mythical Emperor Shen Nong, soy is mentioned around 2800 B.C. Although the data was probably compiled only later during the Han Dynasty.

During the Chou Dynasty (1134-246 B.C.), soybeans joined rice, barley, wheat, and millet as the fifth of the “sacred grains.” At this time, soy was used as a food only through fermentation for miso and soy sauce.

During the Han Dynasty (205 B.C.-220 A.D.)–often considered the definitive expression of “Chinese” civilization–we see the first mention of tofu.

There is nearly a 1,000-year span between when the Chinese began growing soybeans and when they learned how to remove the anti-tryptic factor. So, how did the soybean become “sacred,” even long before its importance as a protein-rich food?

The other four sacred grains are cereals, derived from grasses. And they’re high in carbohydrates. But soy is a legume. And the soy plant attracts bacteria into its root nodules, which pull nitrogen from the air into the soil.

So the soy plant works as a natural fertilizer.

It is likely that ancient Chinese farmers discovered the value of “crop rotation.”  They planted soybeans in between season of grains. This replenished the soil with natural nitrogen fertilization. In much the same way, U.S. farmers used four-crop and three-crop rotation during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Interestingly, the Chinese characters for the other four sacred grains all emphasize the leaves, stalks, and the upper portion of the plants. But the character for soy emphasizes the lower part of the plant, or the root structure, below ground.

It would be great if farmers in the U.S. went back to the old Chinese ways. They don’t have to give up on soybeans completely. Just rotate them. And use real soybeans. Not genetically modified plants. The soil in the U.S. would benefit from the extra nitrogen. And we’d get rid of at least one genetically modified crop.