Filed Under News 

Soy from 7th Century BCE to Present


Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716)


Before 7th century BCE – The Shijing (Book of Odes) is China’s earliest classic and the world’s earliest document that mentions the soybean, which it calls shu. Zheng Xuan, the most important commentator of the 2nd century CE, confirms that shu refers to the soybean and that soybean leaves, called huo, can be pickled – presumably when green, then presumably eaten. In ancient China, the soybean was regarded as having many medicinal virtues, and was included as a preventive medicine in the second class of drugs. In the famous Materia Medica Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu, written by Li Shih-chen in 1597, the soybean is stated to be a specific remedy for the proper functioning of the heart, liver, kidneys, stomach, and bowels. It was also used as a specific remedy for constipation, as a stimulant for the lungs, for eradication of poison from the system, improving the complexion by cleaning the skin of impurities, and stimulating the growth and appearance of the hair. Fresh green soybeans and black soybeans were each ascribed a number of medicinal properties, and to this day black soybeans are widely used by Chinese doctors to strengthen the blood.


659 CE – The earliest known image of a soybean plant from the Xinxiu Bencao [Newly Improved Pharmacopoeia], by Su Jing



The oldest evidence of soy milk production is from China where a kitchen scene proving use of soy milk is incised on a stone slab dated around CE 25-220. It also appeared in a chapter called Four Taboos (Szu-Hui) in the book called Lunheng by Wang Chong (CE 82), possibly the first written record of soy milk. Evidence of soy milk is rare prior to the 20th century and widespread usage before then is unlikely. According to popular tradition in China, soy milk was developed by Liu An for medicinal purposes.


A.D. 100 – The term Sheng dadou [Chinese characters: raw/fresh + large + bean] appears in both Shennong bencao jing (Classical pharmacopoeia of Shen Nung) and later (about A.D. 450-500) in the Mingyi bielu (A critical record of famous doctors. A materia medica). However a careful analysis of the context by a Chinese scholar who is an expert in the history of Chinese foods and of soybeans indicates that this term refers to raw soybeans rather than fresh green soybeans. Therefore, surprisingly, we know of no early reference to green vegetable soybeans in China.


1275 – The word “edamame“ first appears in Japan when the well-known Buddhist Saint Nichiren Shonin writes a note thanking a parishioner for the edamame he left at the temple. In: Nichiren Shonin Gosho Zenshu (The Collected Writings of Saint Nichiren).

1406 – The Ming dynasty famine herbal titled Jihuang bencao, by Zhu Xiao is the earliest Chinese document seen that describes: (1) eating the tender leaves of soybean seedlings (doumiao); (2) eating the whole pods of young soybeans, (3) eating green vegetable soybeans; (4) or grinding the green beans for use with flour. The last three uses are recommended for times of famine only.


1620Maodou (Chinese characters: hairy + bean) are first mentioned in the Runan pushi [An account of the vegetable gardens at Runan], by Zhou Wenhua. “Maodou has green, hairy pods. It is also called qingdou (?green beans’). It is mentioned in the Bencao [materia medica] literature, which states that it has a sweet flavor, is neutral, and non-toxic. It can be used medicinally mainly to ?kill bad/evil chi.’ It stops bodily pain, eliminates water [reduces edema], dispels heat in the stomach, reduces bad blood, and is an antidote to poisonous drugs. Instructions are to “boil the beans in the pods until done, then remove the beans from the pods and eat them. The flavor will be sweet and fresh. Or you can remove the beans from the pods before cooking, and then cook the beans in lightly salted water. Or the beans can be placed on a metal screen over a charcoal fire to roast or dry them. They can be served with tea or fruits, as a snack.“ This is also the earliest document seen that gives medicinal uses for green vegetable soybeans.


1712Engelbert Kaempfer played a key role in introducing the soybean and soyfoods to the Western world.


1855 – T.V. Peticolas of Mount Carmel, Ohio, is the first American to mention green vegetable soybeans. In an article on soybeans in the Country Gentleman he wrote: “They are inconvenient to use green, being so difficult to hull.“


1856 – Only a year later, at least two Americans have apparently figured out how to shell them with ease, and to enjoy them. Thomas Maslin of Virginia wrote: “They are fine for table use, either green or dry.“ Abram Weaver of Bloomfield, Iowa, praises them in the Report of the Commissioner of Patents, Agriculture. “I had some of them cooked, while green, at their largest size, and found them delicious.“


1890 – The first large-seeded vegetable-type soybean variety arrives in America. Named Edamame, it was introduced from Japan by Charles C. Georgeson, who had been a professor of agriculture in Japan. Other early large-seeded varieties included Easycook (introduced in 1894 from Shandong Province, China) and Hahto (1915, from Wakamatsu, Japan).


1915 – William J. Morse (of USDA’s Office of Forage Crop Investigations), is the man most responsible for introducing green vegetable soybeans and vegetable type soybeans to the United States. Soy beans are mentioned for the first time in a USDA special publication titled “Soy beans in the cotton belt“ as “The green bean when three-fourths to full grown has been found to compare favorably with the butter or Lima bean.“


Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) played a key role in introducing the soybean and soyfoods to the Western world. His book Amoenitatum Exoticarum, published in Germany in 1712, contained the first written description by a Westerner of the soybean plant and seeds (accompanied by the first Western illustration of these), plus the most detailed descriptions to date of the process for making miso and shoyu (Japanese-style soy sauce). Actually between 1597 and 1705 six Europeans had written of soyfoods (miso, tofu, and soy sauce (Dissemination to Europe), however none of these men knew how these soyfoods were produced, nor did they realize that they were made from soybeans. With the publication of Kaempfer’s influential and popular book in 1712 the Western world understood, for the first time, the connection between soybeans and soyfoods.


Kaempfer was born on 16 September 1651 at Lemgo, Germany, a small medieval town in the area of Westphalia, belonging to the Count of Lippe. Acquiring a very liberal education and preparing himself for the profession of Physick (physician), Kaempfer quickly showed himself to be naturally brilliant and inquisitive, with a remarkable capacity for learning foreign languages. He received his PhD in Poland, then traveled from there to Prussia, and then to Sweden. In 1689 he travelled to Batavia (today’s Jakarta, Indonesia). In May 1690 Kaempfer left Batavia for Japan in the capacity of medical officer or physician to the Embassy, which the Dutch East India Company sent once a year to the Japanese Emperor’s court. After stopping briefly in Siam, he arrived in Japan on 23 September 1690 at the island of Deshima (or Dejima) near Nagasaki in remote southwest Japan.


Amoenitatum Exoticarum. Kaempfer’s first major work, Amoenitatum Exoticarum, Politico-Physico-Medicarum (often rendered in English as Amoenitates Exoticae or Exotic Novelties), written in Latin, was published in Lemgo in 1712, some 16 years after his homecoming. The fifth fascicle of his 900-page work, which contained a description of the plants of Japan, included a full-page drawing by Kaempfer of a soybean plant, plus a description of the plant, and descriptions of how to make miso and shoyu (he called it sooju), both partially inaccurate. Kaempfer referred to the soybean as Daidsu or as mame, which is a general term for all types of beans. He later mentioned the black soybean under the names of Siuku (meaning uncertain) or Kuro Mame (“black beans,“ which he also referred to as Phaseolus Daidsu). He described it as a dwarf variety with medicinal properties; three or four, reduced to a powder, are administered in potions to asthmatics. Here is an exact translation from Latin of what Kaempfer wrote about soybeans and soyfoods: “Daidsu, as people and scientists call it, is also called “mame“ for its excellence. An upright bean, a leguminous plant like lupine, with whitish fruit somewhat larger than peas. A bean, similar to the aforementioned, but four feet high and with more branches and leaves, with upright stem, irregular branches and with hairs. It stretches forth leaves like the garden bean, but with more pubescence on the underside of the leaf. In the month of August it bears on pedicels in the axil of the leaves several bluish white flowers with a large standard, which resemble those of lentils. These tiny blossoms are followed by pods measuring 1.5 inches long, which are covered with heavy hairs (pubescence) resembling those of the yellow lupine. The pods contain two, and more rarely three seeds, similar to garden peas in size, shape and taste, but laterally somewhat compressed, and with a chestnut brown eye (hilum). This legume supplies to the Japanese kitchen vital elements, for they make from it the following:

1. A kind of pap that they call miso, which is added to dishes instead of butter. Butter is unknown under this strip of heaven.

2. And then the famous so-called shoyu, a sauce which is poured over if not all dishes, at least over all cooked and fried meals.

To produce miso, one takes one measure of mame or phaseolus daidsu which is cooked with water for a long time and then braved or ground and mixed into a soft pap. Under continued braying, common salt is added, in summer four parts, in winter three. If less salt is added, one gets the product quicker, but shelf life is shorter. After reducing has been repeated, one mixes the pap with koos or dehulled rice, and mixes the total by repeated braying. This rice in preparation has been boiled a little in the steam of unsalted water. One lets the mixture cool down and remain in a warm cellar one or two days and nights to ripen.

This mixture, which has the texture of a pap or spread, is put into a bowl that recently contained the popular sacki, a rice wine. Before using, one lets the bowl stand one or two months untouched.

Koos lends to the product an agreeable taste, and its production requires, like that of the Germans’ “polenta,“ the experienced hand of the master. Those therefore who make it are held in high esteem, and they sell it ready made.

To make shoyu one uses the same beans just as thoroughly cooked. And “muggi,“ which is barley or wheat fermented (with wheat the product becomes darker) which has been coarsely ground. One mixes equal units with ordinary salt, or only one unit with half of it. The beans are blended with the prepared grain, and one lets the mixture stand in a warm place under cover a day and a night for fermentation. Then the salt is added, one stirs the mass and mixes with water, normally two units to half. When this has been done, the well covered mass is stirred once (better two or three times) the next day and each subsequent day by means of an oven rake. This work is continued for two or three months, then the mass compressed and filtered and the liquid preserved in wooden containers. The older it becomes, the clearer and better it will be. The squeezed mass is again filled up with water and newly stirred and some days after treatment pressed again.“


It seems likely that Kaempfer learned of these processes from his servant-friend rather than witnessing them himself, or he may have also read of them in a book. It is interesting to note that he made no mention of tofu, Japan’s most widely used soyfood. But he did very clearly, for the first time, establish the connection between soybeans and soyfoods.


Only four years after the publication of his book, on 2 November 1716, Kaempfer died of the colic near his home town.


Kaempfer’s diaries, drawings (including his drawing of the soybean), and manuscripts are now carefully preserved among the rare materials of the British Museum in London. A copy of the first edition of his Amoenitatum Exoticarum and other person items are preserved in the Englebert Kaempfer Museum in Lemgo, Germany. Many of his botanical specimens are still preserved in the Natural History Museum, South Kensington, England.


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.