By Steven Crook/Photos by Rich J Matheson

Few comestibles are more Taiwanese than tofu, soy sauce, and soy milk. 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% of the more than 2.4 million metric tons of soybeans consumed annually by humans or animals in Taiwan is imported, with the United States currently having a 55% market share in terms of volume and 57% in value. Taiwan was the sixth largest export market for U.S. soybeans in 2014.

“Total U.S. 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 that these categories are not monitored, he adds.

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

Some Westerners visiting Taiwan have their first direct experience with soyfoods when their local hosts take them to sample “stinky tofu” (臭豆腐, 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,” she recalls. “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 U.S., 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 beancurd. Mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐, 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 (醬油, jiangyou) to gradually supplant the meat-based fermented sauces that had been the country’s condiment of choice until the sixth century or so.

Soybeans being harvested on an American Farm. 55% (by market share) of Taiwan’s soybeans are imported from the United States. Photo Credit: Rich J Matheson/Taiwan Business TOPICS

Soybeans being harvested on an American Farm. 55% (by market share) of Taiwan’s soybeans are imported from the United States. Photo Credit: Rich J Matheson/Taiwan Business TOPICS

Old-style production

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

At Wuan Chuang, the beans are washed, soaked, and 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 generally takes 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 (豆漿, doujiang) in Taiwan to the efforts of an energetic septuagenarian from Ohio more than six decades ago. Having previously set up soy dairies on the Chinese mainland and in his home state, surgeon-missionary Harry W. Miller was invited to Taipei in 1953 to found an Adventist Sanitarium, and while here he also established a soymilk production line. On his departure three years later, he was decorated by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

Eckhardt says soymilk is “the perfect a.m. beverage, rich enough to satisfy an empty belly, light enough not to weigh you down, refreshing if taken over ice, supremely comforting if drunk warm.” And it’s inexpensive – the cost of a bowl of soymilk is rarely more than NT$30.

“It’s not a substitute for cow’s milk, but something to be savored in its own right,” Eckhardt continues. “Fresh soymilk made in small batches by caring, careful experts is one of the world’s best breakfasts, especially when consumed with a just-fried, slightly salty youtiao (油條, cruller or oil stick).”

According to Eckhardt, one of the best places in Taipei to enjoy this combination is in Ximending. Dulaiye Soymilk Store (都來也豆漿店, 74-1 NeiJiang Street) serves the beverage “served in old-fashioned heavy ceramic bowls… only lightly sweetened, allowing a pleasant, mellow ‘beaniness’ to come through. And the crullers are simply fantastic!”

Much as she loves plain-and-simple soymilk, Eckhardt is an even bigger fan of the “salty” version of the beverage, a treat she first experienced at Guo Mao Lai Lai Soymilk (果貿來來豆漿, 44 Zihciang 1st Road) in central Kaohsiung. Even after the breakfast rush hour, there are enough customers on hand to keep half a dozen workers busy. Soymilk connoisseurs ordering a bowl of the salty variant can have it seasoned with finely chopped scallions, browned shallots, a dollop of sesame oil, and red chili oil. Tiny dried shrimps add a delectable crunchiness. The soybean flavor lurks in the background.

The ingredients cause the soymilk to curdle, taking on a consistency like cottage cheese. Despite its totally unappetizing appearance, Guo Mao Lai Lai’s salty soymilk is absolutely delicious.

Eateries in Taipei serving similar concoctions include Yonghe Soymilk King (永和豆漿大王, 102 FuXing South Road, Section 2; Tel: 2703-5051). Recommended by the blog A Hungry Girl’s Guide to Taipei on account of the freshness of its crullers and low prices, this eatery is conveniently close to the Daan MRT Station, has an English-language menu, and stays open 24/7. A few customers have commented online that the floor is often littered with discarded chopsticks and other debris, but the utensils and food preparation area seem to be kept clean.

Beancurd under production at a local plant before early-morning delivery to shops and restaurants. Photo Credit: Rich J Matheson/Taiwan Business TOPICS

Beancurd under production at a local plant before early-morning delivery to shops and restaurants. Photo Credit: Rich J Matheson/Taiwan Business TOPICS

Reviewing the history

Taiwan has a long history of both cultivating soybeans and importing soy products. The beans grow wild in Taiwan, and native Formosan varieties have thrived as far afield as Indonesia and Hawaii.

Before and during the 1895-1945 Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the island’s farmers grew soy mainly for the oil, which they used in lamps as well as for cooking. However, during the three to four months it took for the beans to mature, the plants were vulnerable to fungi and to such pests as the Formosan blister beetle.

Now most of the approximately 50,000 hectares of soy planted in Taiwan each year is not for human or animal consumption, but as “green manure” to fix nitrogen in the soil. Almost all the rest becomes what the Japanese and some Americans know as edamame. These are immature green soybeans, boiled or steamed in the pod, and served as a side dish. In Taiwan they are known as maodou (“hairy beans,” 毛豆) because soy pods – which typically contain three beans apiece – have very fine hairs. In other situations, Mandarin speakers call soybeans dadou (“big beans,” 大豆) or huangdou (“yellow beans,” 黃豆).

Taiwan has been importing soy products since at least 1647, when the manifest of a Dutch vessel sailing from Nagasaki to what is now Tainan listed four kegs of soy sauce and four kegs of miso, a paste made by fermenting soy with salt and rice or barley. Since the Japanese colonial era, miso soup – which Mandarin speakers call weiceng tang (味噌湯) – has been an everyday food in Taiwan. Scallions, small cubes of tofu, and squares of seaweed float in a turbid broth. It is a low-calorie, high-protein dish. Some local vegetarian restaurants make mock miso sashimi (味噌蒟蒻片, weiceng juruo pian) by mixing miso with konnyaku.

In the first decade of the 20th century, a surge in sugar production occurred in Taiwan, attributed to the use of two imported fertilizers. One was Manchurian soybean cake, the leftovers from pressing for oil; another was goose-bone dust shipped in from Australia. As late as 1935, bean cake accounted for more than 40% of all commercial fertilizer used in Taiwan, with annual imports exceeding 200,000 metric tons.

Soybeans are the world’s no. 1 source of vegetable oil, and the availability of cheap American soybean oil is one reason why most Taiwanese households no longer cook with lard. In terms of gross weight harvested, soy is the sixth largest food crop globally, behind maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, and cassava. An estimated 249 million metric tons were harvested last year, with Brazil and the United States each accounting for 36% of global production.

Soybeans appeal to livestock farmers because, for their weight, they contain more protein, calcium, and vitamins C, B1, and B9 than any of the top five crops.

Many regard soy as a health food for humans, but the truth is more complex. American physician and broadcaster Ben Kim is one of many who advise people not to overindulge in soyfoods, although he has noted that “foods made with fermented soy are thought to be healthier than those made with unfermented soy.”

Unfermented soyfoods such as tofu and soymilk have an abundance of phytic acid, a compound that can block the absorption of iron, zinc, calcium, and copper. If a lot of soy is consumed, the oxalic acid it contains may lead to the formation of kidney stones. Soybeans also have an abundance of isoflavones, which can hinder iodine absorption and thus potentially lead to hypothyroidism. Soy’s phytoestrogens have various anti-cancer effects, but high intakes of them long-term may pose health problems.

Photo Credit: Rich J Matheson/Taiwan Business TOPICS

Photo Credit: Rich J Matheson/Taiwan Business TOPICS

Soy is at the heart of the global argument about genetically modified (GM) crops. At least 93% of U.S. soy is GM, but domestic production is prohibited in Taiwan, as it is in the European Union. Among the advantages of genetic modification of soy is tolerance to glyphosate-based herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup. Scientists are also endeavoring to increase the crop’s resistance to pathogens and pests, such as aphids, and to remove allergens.

Taiwan’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) introduced new GMO labeling requirements last summer. Bulk foods, packaged foods, and condiments that include 3% or more GM ingredients must be labeled as genetically modified. If a particular product’s GM ingredients total less than 3%, food companies can choose whether to label it “In Line with National Standards” or to state the actual percentage of GM ingredients.

AIT’s Thorburn, who prefers the term GE (genetically engineered) to GM, estimates demand for non-genetically engineered soy in Taiwan at a mere 2% of total imports. “When changes or mandates, such as Taiwan’s labeling requirements, are imposed on categories of products to meet the demands of a tiny minority, additional costs result, and those costs are passed on to the consumer,” he says.

GE crops, “including U.S. soybeans, have been repeatedly confirmed as safe for human consumption,” he says, adding that they are the “most extensively tested crops to ever be introduced into the food chain.” Notes Thornburn: “Many U.S. and international bodies, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and American Medical Association, have concluded that there is no unique hazard in the use of GE technology or consumption of GE food products. On the other hand, since the introduction of GE technologies, global chemical pesticide use has decreased, while crop yields and farmer profits have increased.”

Photo Credit: Rich J Matheson/Taiwan Business TOPICS

Photo Credit: Rich J Matheson/Taiwan Business TOPICS

Taiwan Business TOPICS Magazine has authorized publication of this article. The original text was published here.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White