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History of Tofu

Tofu made from a blend of American and Japanese Soybeans.

Soybean Import

Japan’s annual soybean consumption is 4.9 million tons. Of this, only 150,000 tons are produced domestically, with Japan relying on imports from America, China, Canada, and Brazil for the rest. Moreover, 90% of Japan’s imported soybeans are produced in the United States.

In the past, American soybeans were mainly grown for soy sauce production, and there was a time when American soybeans were thought to have less protein than soybeans grown in Japan. However, after numerous subsequent cultivar improvements, recent crops produce pure food strains of soybean with high protein content.

Foods such as tofu, miso, soy sauce and natto (fermented soybeans) are considered traditional Japanese foods. In reality, these foods are almost entirely made from soybeans grown in the United States.

Soybean Blends

Tofu made from a blend of American and Japanese Soybeans.

At present, the majority of worldwide tofu producers use blends of American and Japanese soybeans. Generally speaking, the weak point of the American soybean lies in its lack of flavor. However, Japan’s soybean production volume is low, making quality consistency difficult. The high prices further make Japan’s soybeans unattractive to process manufacturers. For example, in 2005 60kg of American soybeans cost about 4,800 Yen, while Japanese soybeans cost about 7,000 yen. From the perspective of tofu producers, both American and Japanese soybeans have advantages and disadvantages in terms of price and quality, which usually results in both soybean blends being used.

Incidentally, it was only about a hundred years ago that full scale soybean production began in Europe and the United States. Records show that a German botanist discovered the soybean in Japan in the 17th Century, which is considered to be the first occasion a westerner encountered the soybean. There are records which also indicate that Matthew Calbraith Perry brought a variety of soybean strains back to America from Japan upon his return from his voyages to Japan in his black ships.

These soybeans that crossed the ocean to America now comprise the ingredients that support the traditional cuisine of Japan.

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