Soybeans are a legume which have been cultivated by the Chinese for thousands of years. They are so important to the Chinese that they're considered one of the five sacred grains (the others are rice, wheat, barley and millet). The Japanese have been growing soybeans since the 6th century, but the Europeans only since the 17th. Today 90% of soybeans are used to feed livestock.

Soybeans are notable for their very high nutritive value, which wasn't proven scientifically until the 20th century, and since then they have become an important crop in North America, where they grow easily.

There are more than 1,000 varieties of soybean, ranging in size from as small as a pea to as large as a cherry. The pods can be tan to black, and are covered with fuzz. The beans can be red, yellow, green, brown and black, or a combination of colours. Their flavour is bland, though the husks can be bitter, so the beans are often hulled. Unlike other legumes, however, they are low in carbohydrates and high in protein and "good" oil.

Soybeans are used to produce tofu, a cooking oil, a flour, soy milk, soy sauce, miso, tamari sauce, and black bean sauce. They can be soaked and cooked like any other dried bean, and can sprouted and used in salads. Soybean by-products are used to make margarine and as an emulsifier in processed foods as well as nonfood items like soap and plastic.

The ignoble soybean has become a snack food craze. The bright green pods sold here are akin to pea pods in color and size but the skin is fuzzy rather than smooth. They're best served blanched for snacking, have a mild nutty flavor and a bit firmer than other dried beans. Adding seasoned salt is a nice way to flavor them up.

Dried soy beans contain 1½ as much protein as other beans and are highly valued as a weapon against high cholesterol, osteoporosis, cancer of the breast, colon, and prostate. They are such high quality protein that soybeans are frequently used as meat extenders and are comparable to animal protein in helping with body growth and energy. Soy flour or grits and soy protein concentrate (textured or powdered) are used commercially in baked good, baby foods, candy, cereals and some sausages. Isolated soy protien (extracted) is used in sausages and cold cuts, whipped toppings, frozen dessert, dips, sauces, gravies and snacks. Textures soy protein (from the three previously mentioned products) is used for meat extenders or substitutes, including imitation bacon. While soy foods will not replace meats they provide protein in a wide variety of ways.

To prepare fresh soybeans for snacking, heat water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add 1 tablespoon of salt and one pound soybeans in the pod. Return to a boil and cook for 4 to 5 minutes.

Beans should be cooked but still firm. Drain into a colander and, whiles till warm, toss with a salt based seasoning mix such as Cajun or lemon pepper for some zip. They can be refrigerated as long as 4 days or frozen as long as three months.

Many thanks to Ouroboros who says edamame is what we call the fresh (or frozen) preparation described, here on the West Coast.

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