Rice may be considered the staple food of Japan, but soybeans are its culinary backbone. They’re used in so many ways that you probably know some of them already, like soymilk, miso and tofu, but I challenge you to name all 18! That’s right, they use 18 different forms of soybeans in Japan, and I’m going to introduce you to them all.

First though, I should remember my manners and introduce you to this small but powerful legume. The soybean is from East Asia and has been (bean? I love puns) eaten by humans for thousands of years. Daizu in Japanese, it even has a mention in Japan’s oldest written record, the Kojiki. Nowadays, it has come to practically dominate the world (I’m not joking – it’s consumed on every major continent) and it feeds farm animals and humans alike.

Nutritionally, the beans are a powerhouse, but they must be cooked properly for human consumption. 100g contains all of the iron you need in a day, as well as plenty of fibre, manganese and phosphorous. They are one of the few plant sources of complete protein, which makes them a popular choice for meat-free diets. Environmentally, they’re amazing too, as they give more protein per acre than farm animals. So there’s a good reason why Japan, as a country with little flat land for farming, has made sure to use every last permutation of the soybean.

Now, for the fun part! I should say, before I start listing, that some of these that I’ve put as individual uses may seem very similar to you, but my rule is: if it has a separate name in Japan, then it’s a separate use!

Each entry has the name in Japanese, a description of what it is, and other relevant info like which part of Japan you’ll mostly find it, or if it’s eaten at a certain time of year. If you’re lucky, I’ll also have a picture to put with it!

1) Moyashi
Beansprouts aren’t just made from mung beans! Although soybeans aren’t as widely seen in this form, they do exist.

2) Edamame
Immature soybeans, boiled in their pods and eaten with salt, often as a bar snack. You can often find them frozen, as they don’t keep for very long.

3) Zunda, a rough paste made from edamame and sugar. Famous as a speciality of Sendai for topping mochi (or dango), it can be used in many other sweets and even savoury dishes

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From top-left: zunda dango and zunda curry!

4) Irimame
Roasted soybeans, which have a great crunch and a very savoury flavour. These light brown, dry snacks are called fukumame (or lucky beans) during the festival of Setsubun, when they are used to throw at oni (demons) as a symbol of driving away bad luck.

5) Kinako
Roasted soy bean flour, which is traditionally used for Japanese sweets, but is also delicious in muffins and other Western-style baked goods (I know, I had some!) It can also be made into a drink by adding it to soy milk.

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Warabi-mochi, a traditional Japanese sweet which is covered in kinako

6) Daizu-yu
Soybean oil. This can be used on salads, or as the base for mayonnaise and margarine. I’ve probably eaten this without realising, so it likely doesn’t have a strong flavour.
(Side note: the oil is the main ingredient of soy ink, which is widely used in Japan. Not a food, but a fun fact nonetheless!)

7) Kuromame-cha
Black soybean tea. It’s not a common tea (like, say, green tea), but again, you can find it.

8) Tounyuu (or tonyu)
Soymilk - you’ve probably seen this one before. It’s made by soaking the beans in water then grinding them, resulting in an off-white liquid with a savoury flavour. It’s available in Japan in a variety of flavours.

It can also be used to make other dairy-free foods, such as…
  • Soy ice-cream, just as delicious *and* vegan!

Another soy dessert is this beautiful creation:

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(this one is actually made from tofu - see below for more!)

9) Tofu
After taking both the food and its Japanese name into our lives, this soft, white blocky substance is highly recognisable in many Western countries. Tofu is actually another use of soy milk, made in a similar way to cheese – coagulated to make curds, then pressed into shape. In Japan the two main types are soft and firm tofu or silken and cotton tofu in Japanese. Between them, they are used in an innumerable amount of dishes, including miso soup (keep reading!).

The tofu-making process creates some by-products, which are also used as ingredients in other dishes:
10) Okara
Known in English as soy pulp or tofu dregs, it’s a lot nicer than it sounds! It can be used in a number of dishes, and is apparently great for making veggie burgers. On its own it has an almost cottage cheese-like appearance.
11) Yuba
This also has a slightly unappetising name in English: tofu skin. Fresh, it looks a lot like the skin that forms on cow’s milk, which isn’t surprising because yuba forms when soy milk is boiled. It is often sold dried, and can be used to make “tofu duck”, or used as a substitute for chicken breast.

Tofu can also be fried in various ways to create even more ingredients:
12) Aburaage
Your basic fried tofu, this one is tofu cut into thin slices. It can be put into ramen or miso soup (I’m getting to it!) or sweetened and stuffed with rice to make a type of sushi called inari zushi.
13) Atsuage
“Atsu” means thick, so this is a thicker slab of fried tofu. This one can be topped with spring onions and shichimi, a type of spice mix, and eaten with soy sauce fresh out of the fryer. Sankakuage is a triangular form of atsuage that is a speciality of Johgi Temple in the Sendai area.
14) Agedashi dofu
This one might technically count as a dish, but I’m including it anyway! Agedashi dofu is cubes of silken tofu coated in potato starch and fried. It’s served hot with grated radish, bonito flakes, green onion and tsuyu, a sauce made of dashi, mirin, and soy sauce.

15) Shoyu
Soy sauce – this dark brown, salty condiment almost needs no introduction. It’s made by fermenting boiled soybeans and roasted grain with various micro-organisms, and adding brine. Each country has its own version, and even within Japan there are five main types. Koikuchi is the main one, with the others varying in strength, sweetness and saltiness.

16) Miso
You may have heard of miso, which is made by fermenting soy beans with salt and koji, a type of fungus. Considered a type of seasoning, it is the main ingredient in miso soup and also forms a base for ramen. It’s sold in Japanese supermarkets in plastic tubs, which can hold 500g or 1kg of miso, which I would say looks almost like a less solid version of peanut butter. The colour varies - the two main types are red and white miso, although there are many more, some mixed with cereal grains. Red is preferred in the Kanto area around Tokyo, while white is more popular in the Kansai region (which includes Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe).

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I’ve had it in ice-cream, but I really like it on roasted mochi (rice cakes)!

17) Natto
Natto is soybeans fermented with a specific type of bacterium. This is an acquired taste, even within Japan, where it is more popular in the eastern regions of Kanto, Tohoku and Hokkaido. It has a strong smell and flavour (which I would describe as cheesy, but in a bad way), and a slimy texture (which I have heard described as pondweed). It looks like whole beans held together with a pale, stringy substance. I think you can guess whether I liked it or not from that description, and I swear, it was a blind taste test.
It can be found in sushi, but I mostly saw it being eaten on rice with soy sauce, which is a popular breakfast food, and a nutritious meal for a calorie-controlled diet.

18) Amanatto
Thankfully, nothing like natto! This form is a type of traditional sweet - beans boiled in sugar syrup, dried and then coated in sugar. Many types of beans can be used, but black soy beans are one of them.

So there we have it: Japan’s 18 different uses of soybeans. What do you think? How many of these did you know beforehand, and how many have you tried? Please comment – I can’t wait to read them!