Soybeans have been a celebrated part of Asian cuisine for thousands of years. In fact, it’s believed that soybeans were first domesticated in China in 11th century B.C.!

These days, if you take a stroll through your local Asian grocery store, it’s hard to ignore the humble soybean’s prominence on shelves. You’ll find whole refrigerators stocked end-to-end with tofu, aisles brimming with soy sauce varieties and packages of natto waiting behind frosted doors in the frozen section. However, with so many choices, it can be hard to know where to begin – especially if you haven’t tried some of these soy-based products before.

We’re here to help with a deep dive into some common products traditionally found in East and Southeast Asian cuisines but now consumed around the world. Let’s dig in!

1. Tofu

What is tofu?

Tofu was likely first developed in China during the Han Dynasty. Today, there are two popular types of tofu: silken tofu and block tofu. As its name suggests, silken tofu has a silky, custard-like texture. It’s formed from coagulated soymilk and can vary from soft to extra firm density. Block tofu, which is the most common form found in grocery stores, has a sponge-like texture formed from soy milk curds. You can find block tofu in soft to super-firm varieties.

How do I eat tofu?

Due to its versatility and neutral flavor, tofu is a blank canvas that can be used in a countless variety of ways. Tofu can even be consumed right out of the packaging! Often, you’ll need to press block tofu to remove excess moisture before using it in a recipe. After seasoning it or letting it marinade, you can pan-fry, bake, grill or steam it. Silken tofu is more delicate than block tofu and can be used in smoothies, dressings or desserts, like this Lemon Tofu Cheesecake. 

If you’re looking to cook an authentic Chinese dish with tofu, try mapo tofu, a traditional recipe from the Sichuan province.

Does tofu have nutritional benefits?

Tofu is a nutrient-dense food, containing vitamins, minerals and all the essential amino acids your body needs. In 85 grams of tofu, you’ll get 7.3 grams of protein and 94.9mg of calcium. In fact, soy protein, which includes tofu, carries the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) heart-health claim.

Learn more about tofu here:

2. Tempeh

What is tempeh?

Tempeh is traditionally made from fermented, partially-cooked soybeans that are formed into a firm, meaty cake. Tempeh originated on the island of Java in Indonesia hundreds of years ago. In fact, it is the only traditional soy-based food that did not originate from China or Japan. 

How do I eat tempeh?

Because it has been fermented, tempeh has an earthy, nutty taste. It can be used as a plant-based substitute in all kinds of recipes, like this Tex Mex Tempeh Chili, helping to make your favorite meat dish vegetarian. You can cut it into slabs or cubes or even grate it, then steam, sauté or simmer the tempeh to bring out its flavors.

In Indonesia, tempeh is deep-fried and eaten as a traditional snack. Sambal goreng tempe is a traditional Indonesian recipe that deep fries tempeh in a caramelized spice paste.

Does tempeh have nutritional benefits?

Because it’s more compact than its non-fermented counterpart, tofu, it provides more protein in the same serving size. In a 3-ounce serving of tempeh, there are 16.92 grams of protein. It’s also rich in B vitamins like riboflavin and niacin.

Learn more about tempeh here:

3. Edamame

What is edamame?

“Edamame” is the Japanese word for “bean branch.” Edamame are whole soybeans that are harvested when they are immature and green in appearance. In the U.S., you may have seen edamame served as an appetizer at a Japanese restaurant.

How do I eat edamame?

Edamame can be served in its pod or in a shelled form. There is no single way to enjoy edamame – it’s super versatile! Eat it as a snack or appetizer, or shell it to complement an entrée. One of the most popular ways to enjoy edamame is to boil the pods, drain and sprinkle them with salt. You could also try these easy, delicious recipes for Wok Charred Edamame 3 Ways. After cooking and seasoning them to your liking, pop a bean out of the pod with your mouth or fingers, and then discard the pod when you’re finished.

Does edamame have nutritional benefits?

Edamame contains vitamins and minerals and is a good source of protein and fiber. Interestingly, since it is harvested while immature, it contains has more vitamin K and folate than a mature soybean.

Learn more about edamame here:

4. Miso

What is miso?

Miso is a key ingredient in Japanese cooking, introduced more than 1,300 years ago. It’s made by fermenting soybeans (and other ingredients) into a paste, and it delivers an “umami” flavor, or deep savory taste, to any dish.

There are many types of miso which all depend on several factors, including ingredients, fermentation time and storage while the soybean is fermenting. The three most popular types of miso are white miso, or sweet miso, which is fermented for the least amount of time and has a sweeter flavor; yellow miso, which is fermented longer than white miso; and red miso, which is the fermented the longest and has a saltier flavor.

How do I eat miso?

Miso can be used to add a deeper flavor to dressings, sauces, batters, soups and dips, like guacamole. If you’re a first-timer, give a classic miso soup recipe a try. For an unexpected use, try adding miso to your favorite cake or cookie recipe.

Does miso have nutritional benefits?

In 1 teaspoon of Miso, there are 0.73 grams of protein, several vitamins and minerals and may even support overall gut health.

Learn more about miso here:

5. Natto

What is natto?

Natto is a fermented soybean snack that you’ll typically find in the frozen aisle of your local Asian market. It usually comes in a square package with a unique aroma and sticky consistency.

You may have seen natto trending in your social media feeds lately, but it’s a soy food that’s been enjoyed for thousands of years since its introduction in North Japan. Many countries in Asia have their own version of natto, including the Philippines, Korea, Thailand and China.

How do I eat natto?

Natto can be eaten directly from the packaging or over a warm bed of rice. A package of natto may come with sauce packets to add to the beans before stirring and enjoying.

Does natto have nutritional benefits?

Natto is rich in probiotics, protein, minerals and vitamins, even vitamin K. Studies have shown the fermented foods may boost immunity and overall digestive health. 

Learn more about natto here:

While this list certainly is not exhaustive, it’s easy to see that soy and its use in Asian cuisine has had (and continues to have!) major influence in food and cultures around the world. Next time you’re at your local grocery store, make sure to grab one of these soy ingredients and try a new recipe.