Thursday, February 4, 2016

American Soy and the Taiwanese Diet (Taiwan Business Topics)

Few comestibles are more Taiwanese than tofu, soy sauce and soymilk. All three are made from soy, a legume first cultivated in Northeast Asia at least 2,700 years ago. Directly and indirectly, Taiwanese now consume soybeans in far greater quantities than two generations ago, a change in diet caused in part by American influences, and made possible by American imports. 

Around 97 percent of the approximately 2.3 million tonnes of soybeans consumed annually by humans or animals in Taiwan is imported, and in most years the US is the no. 1 supplier. During the second half of the 20th century, US shipments of soybeans to Taiwan grew 20-fold, peaking at 2.61 million tonnes in 1996. 

"Total US soybean exports to Taiwan in 2014 totaled US$725 million. Of that 12% was for human food, while 88% was for crushing into oil and soybean meal for animals," says W. Garth Thorburn, chief of the Agricultural Section at the American Institute in Taiwan. Other uses, such as using soy to make ink or wax, are so small these categories are not monitored, he adds. "The US share of Taiwan’s total soybean imports fluctuates because of price and other market factors, but was 65% during the first eight months of 2015, when Taiwan purchased 977,992 tonnes of American soy."

Tofu (doufu) appears in classy vegetarian feasts as well as humble lunchboxes. Dried tofu (dougan) is a popular snack, and a key ingredient of Hakka stir-fry (kejia xiaochao). Very soft tofu, sometimes called bean-curd pudding (douhua), is a traditional dessert enjoyed with peanuts, tapioca balls, adzuki beans or mung beans. 

Some Westerners visiting Taiwan have no direct experience of soyfoods until their local hosts take them to sample stinky tofu (choudoufu). The eponymous host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern favorably compared this pungent delicacy to Limburger cheese. New Taipei City’s Shenkeng District, is considered Taiwan’s stinky tofu capital; the town’s soy delights were described in the April 2011 issue of Taiwan Business Topics. 

"Growing up in the 1970s in Michigan, I never heard of or encountered tofu until I began shopping at a co-op in East Lansing, where I went to college," says Robyn Eckhardt, who now writes about food on her blog EatingAsia and for publications including the New York Times.  "The first meal my now-husband cooked for me after we started dating was tofu in spaghetti sauce, and I didn't think much of it. Then I went to Chengdu after graduating from university, and that forever changed my idea of what tofu is or should be. I didn't eat it often after going back to the US, simply because it's hard to find good, tasty tofu there." 

"Once we moved back to Asia about a decade ago, I started eating a lot of it," says Eckhardt, who is now based in Malaysia. After extensive traveling, she has concluded that Taiwan’s soyfoods are as every bit as "deliciously ethereal" as those served in Japan. 

Because it can be turned into "mock meat," soy has been embraced by many who do not eat animal flesh. That said, one of the Sinophere’s best known recipes uses meat to enhance the flavor of the tofu. Mapo tofu (mapo doufu) features minced pork or beef alongside chunks of tofu in a spicy sauce. 

The spread throughout China of Buddhism and related vegetarian principles caused soy sauce (jiangyou) to gradually supplant the meat-based fermented sauces which, until the sixth century or so, had been the country’s condiment of choice. 

One place where soy sauce is still made the traditional way is the 106-year-old Wuan Chuang Soy Sauce Tourism Factory in Yunlin County’s Xiluo Township. Visitors to Wuan Chuang can try their hand at making a batch of sauce using black soybeans. (Some types of soy sauce use yellow soybeans). 

The beans are washed, soaked, then steamed. After cooling, each batch is smeared with Aspergillus oryzae fungus. The mold is allowed to thrive for a week, then washed off with brine. The bean paste is poured into large earthenware pots, sealed beneath a layer of salt, and left to ferment for six months. The viscous black liquid removed at the end of this period is filtered, diluted and bottled. By contrast, the production process for mass-market brands is often less than a week, as chemicals are used to accelerate fermentation. Roasted grain is a common ingredient in many types of soy sauce. 

Some attribute the popularity of soymilk (doujiang) in Taiwan to an energetic septuagenarian from Ohio. Having previously set up soy diaries on the Chinese mainland and in his home state, surgeon-missionary Dr. Harry W. Miller was invited to Taipei in 1953 to found an Adventist Sanitarium in Taipei. While here, he also established a soymilk production line...

The read the whole article, get the January issue of Taiwan Business Topics, or go to this webpage (where the article has a somewhat different title). The photo above, which I took, shows salty soymilk with spicy oil and other condiments as served by a Kaohsiung eatery.

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