History of Soy
Soybeans: The Success Story*
by Theodore Hymowitz
Watching ballerina Natalia Makarova effortlessly float across the stage is
awe inspiring. On the sport scene, watching Edwin Moses attack each hurdle
on his way to another victory is poetry in motion. The common experiences of
a Russian prima ballerina and an American world class hurdler are obvious,
both were not instant successes. Rather, they have spent years practicing and
patiently developing their skills."
Likewise, there are very few instant success stories in the history of dissemination
of food, feed fiber or industrial crops from one region to another. As Professor
Ho, an historian at the University of Chicago, has aptly written (1955), "It
is foolish to believe that a certain plant can be introduced into a new area
only once, and then only by a certain route. A new plant may score an immediate
success in one region and remain neglected in another for a considerable time.
Sometimes only through repeated trial and error can a new plant strike root.
Sometimes a new plant may actually be introduced more than once:
Before discussing the successful rooting of the soybean in the U.S., perhaps
it would be useful to review the historical roots of the crop and trace the
paths of dissemination from its primary gene center in China to selected regions.
PATHS OF DISSEMINATION — OLD WORLD
The history of the dissemination of the soybean is of course only partially
known. It is not uncommon for soldiers of fortune, ship captains, traders,
travelers, religious emissaries and government officials to leave few or no
records. Nevertheless, enough information is known about the dissemination
of the soybean in order to establish a skeleton framework. For specific regions
or areas, the detailed information about the introduction of the soybean will
need to be fleshed out by local historians.
Linguistic, geographical and historical evidence suggest that the soybean
emerged as a domesticate around the eleventh century B.C. in the eastern half
China. Domestication is a process of trial and error and not an event. In the
case of the soybean, this process probably took place during the Shang dynasty
(ca. 1700-1100 B.C.) or perhaps earlier. By the first century A.D. the soybean
probably reached central and south China, as well as peninsular Korea. The
movement of the soybean within the primary gene center is associated with the
development, consolidation of territories, and degeneration of Chinese dynasties.
From about the first century A.D. to the Age of Discovery (15-16th century),
soybeans were introduced into several countries and land races developed in
Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, Nepal
and north India. These regions comprise the secondary gene center. The movement
of the soybean throughout this period was due to the establishment of sea and
land trade routes, for example, the silk road; the migrations of certain tribes
from China, for example, the Thais; and the rapid acceptance of the plant as
a staple food by other cultures, for example, the Indonesians. The earliest
Japanese reference to the soybean is in the classic Kojiki (Records of Ancient
Matters) which was completed in 712 A.D.
For centuries, the soybean has been the cornerstone of East Asian nutrition.
Although many different foods were developed from the soybean, the four most
important are miso, soy sauce, tempeh and tofu. These traditional foods have
little physical or flavor identity with the original bean. Thus, it's not too
surprising that the first Europeans who visited China or Japan did not mention
the soybean as a crop in their journals, for example, Marco Polo.
Starting in the late 16th century and throughout the 17th century European
visitors to China and Japan noted in their diaries the use of a peculiar bean
from which various food products were produced. The Florentine, Francesco Carletti
who visited Nagasaki, Japan in 1597 wrote in his memoirs that the Japanese
flavor fish dishes with a certain sauce called misol and that it is made from
a bean that is grown in various localities. He also noted that the Japanese
make a product called shiro (soy sauce), what Europeans would call gravy. In
1665, Friar Domingo Navarrete described tofu as a common and cheap food of
China. "They drew the milk out of the Kidney-Beans and turning it, make
great Cakes of it like Cheeses . . . All the Mass is as white as the very Snow
. . . Alone it is insipid, but very good dress'd as I say and excellent fry'd
in Butter." Occasionally a European was fooled by soybean products. For
example, in 1613, Captain John Saris visited Japan. In his log he wrote the
following about the food habits of the Japanese. "Of cheese they have
plenty. Butter they make none, neither will they eat any milk... " Most
probably he mistook tofu for cheese.
In the 17th century soy sauce was a common item of trade from the East to
the West. For example, in 1679, John Locke noted in his journal that mango
soy are two sauces brought to England from the East Indies. It was not until
1712, when Engelbert Kaempfer, who lived in Japan during 1691 and 1692 as
a medical officer of the Dutch East India Company, published his book Amoenitatum
Eroficum , that the Western world fully understood the connection between
cultivation of soybeans and its utilization as a food plant. Kaempfer's drawing
of the soybean is accurate and his detailed description of how to make soy
sauce and miso are correct.
The soybean reached Europe quite late. It must have reached the Netherlands
before 1737 as Linnaeus described the soybean in the Hortus Cliffortianus
which was based on plants cultivated in the garden at Hartecamp.
In 1739, soybean seeds sent by missionaries in China were planted
in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris, France. In 1790, soybeans were
planted at the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, England and in 1804
they were planted near Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia. In the Netherlands,
France and England the soybeans were grown for taxonomic or display
purposes. However, the soybeans grown in Yugoslavia were harvested,
cooked, mixed with cereal grain and then fed to chickens for increased
* This article is dedicated to the memory of my friend and colleague Prof.
dr. Bogdan Belic, Novi Sad, Yugoslavia
Soybeans: The Success Story, Advances in New Crops, Edited by Jules Janick
and James Simon, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 1990, pages 159-163.