How America Killed Soy Milk – Eater

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Growing up in Los Angeles with Taiwanese parents, homemade soymilk (in Chinese: dou jiang 豆漿) had been a ritualized part of my morningfreshly squeezed every day by a little machine. My mom would soak whole soybeans in water overnight, dump them into this device, and out came creamy, thick, and luscious piping hot milk. She would strain the liquid in a glass pitcher and tiny bubbles would form on the top. Over time I learned to tell how fresh a batch was by the cluster of bubbles that hugged the rim of a glass. The more bubbles, the newer and hotter the batch. I’d pour myself at least two cups and proudly never add sugar. No one in my family did.

When I moved to New York for college, I had to give up mom’s soymilk, and I thought I could make do with what was sold in city bodegas. I was so wrong; soymilk in a box is nowhere near comparable to the fresh stuff.

Real soymilk is thick like cow’s milk. It coats your upper lip and immediately warms you up for the day to come. It tastes of tender tofu, slightly burnt. It might even be a little mealy, but it ultimately goes down velvety smooth.

I detect no remnants of soy or bean.

American store-bought soymilk does not cling. It is stripped of its inherent creaminess. I detect no remnants of soy or bean. Instead, it’s like water with a heap of additives and sugar.

According to a manuscript on the history of soy foods, in the 1970s, corporations developed new techniques, mostly in the United States, to eliminate bean-y flavors from soymilk. By applying excessive heat to the finished milk through boiling or steaming, flavors were squashed.

Chinese soymilk porridge. All photos by Clarissa Wei.

America killed soymilk, stripped it of its purity, and added in calcium carbonate.

When queried as to why boxed versus fresh soymilk taste so different, Koki Sato, owner of Los Angeles’ Meiji Tofu, says, “I can only speak from comparing my soy milk to commercialized soy milk, but one of the major reason is probably the shelf life. Soy milk tends to coagulate if it’s made too rich even without a coagulant. That’s probably why packaged soy milks found in markets tend to taste a little more ‘watered down.’ Also, producing thinner soy milk can also mean shaving the cost as well.”

Which explains soymilk’s stale reputation in the States. And it certainly doesn’t help that here the word soy is synonymous with genetically modified organisms or GMOs. More than 90 percent of the soybeans churned out on American farms each year are genetically engineered to withstand herbicides.

In short: America killed soymilk, stripped it of its purity, and added in calcium carbonate.
To understand the true essence of soy, one must examine China, the birthplace of this beautiful bean. Soybeans were first cultivated in China nearly 6000 years ago, and today, the country consumes more than 80 percent of soybeans produced worldwide. Of note: Imported genetically modified beans from the U.S. and Brazil constitute two-thirds of that supply. China’s farms are still largely anti-GMO.

In a land where cow’s milk is still a relatively new addition to the layman’s diet (many Asians are lactose intolerant), soymilk has long been the morning beverage of choice. There are, of course, regional preferences. In northern China, hot salty soymilk is a breakfast staple. It’s served in a bowl, with scallions, maybe some shallots, crowned with a ring of soy sauce. In the south, a.m. soymilk is sold in plastic bags or cups and sweetened with a hint of sugar. Unsweetened soymilk is consumed as a breakfast drink countrywide. It can be found at roadside stands in many parts of China, and Taiwan, too. Fresh soymilk, simply put, is no big deal.

L to R: Loofah with soymilk; bowls of sweet and salty soymilk in Shanghai.

I hesitate to call soymilk-making an artisanal, small-batch practice, even though, inherently, that is what it is in China and Taiwan. The words artisanal and small-batch, for me, conjure up images of handsome young mustached dudes bottling milk in glass jars and charging a steep fee for the hand-crafted good.

While in reality, it’s usually older, wrinkly aunties and uncles doing the work. And God forbid they charge more than $1 for a cup.

Across from my apartment in Taipei is a breakfast vendor, doling out traditional Taiwanese bites like youtiao (deep-fried wheat cruller) and baos of all sorts. Soymilk is but a natural pairing, brewed in a vat (soybeans are blended with water and then filtered through cheesecloth) not far from the cash register. It’s cheap; it’s as simple as putting beans in a machine.

Fresh soymilk, simply put, is no big deal.

But as easy as it is to prepare, buying bulk-made soymilk from a huge factory is far more convenient. Interest in packaged, pre-sweetened soymilk grew in China during the early 1980s partially thanks to flourishing soymilk companies Vitasoy in Hong Kong and Yeo Hiap Send in Singapore. They introduced boxed, additive-laced soy beverages with a stellar shelf-life. Convenience aside, these boxed alternatives are a far cry from the fresh stuff, so much so that the Chinese have assigned another word for it: dou nai 豆奶.

Dou nai is a paradox in and of itself. In Taipei, where coffee shops are now rampant, it’s ironically difficult to find a soy latte, even though fresh soymilk is ubiquitous throughout Taiwan. And when you do find a version at Starbucksit’s labeled dou nai latte, not dou jiang.

Perhaps the reason why many coffee shops in Taiwan and China lack soy lattes is because their recipes are often copied, verbatim, from the West. And in the West, fresh and creamy soymilk plus coffee doesn’t really exist.

Fresh soymilk in Shanghai.

And then there’s the health debate. In recent years, in the States, soy has been toppled over from its pedestal as a health food and eschewed for containing too much estrogen and phytic acida substance that reduces absorption of essential minerals like calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium.

According to Chinese locals I recently polled on the subject of fresh soymilk, they laughed when I told them that Americans are now scared of soy. “We usually only have it for breakfast,” Xiao Chen, a student in Hangzhou said. “Also, everything should be consumed in moderation.”

In fact, the Chinese consider fresh soymilk a much healthier alternative to cow’s milkcow’s milk itself is believed to contain too many additives and hormones.

the Chinese consider fresh soymilk a much healthier alternative to cow’s milk

In China’s eastern cities of Nanjing and Shanghai, I encountered menus that frequently advertised soymilk as a healthy cooking ingredient. Shanghai’s The Dining Room serves sigua (or loofah, a type of cucumber) gently simmered with soymilk. Meanwhile, Nanjing’s esteemed local chain Nanjing Dapai Dang offers rice porridge fashioned with slightly sweetened soymilk and burdock root. A small note on the menu promotes it as a health dish, with skin-whitening properties reportedly loved by Chiang Kai-shek’s wife.

Though America may have killed soymilk, thankfully, the real stuff isn’t going away anytime soonat least in China. If you’ve never had freshly squeezed soymilk, consider stopping by a Taiwanese breakfast joint in the States (there are at least a dozen in Los Angeles), or simply invest in a home machine. Sip while hot and holdback the sugar. Soymilk in its unadulterated form is lush and nutty, not thin and stale.

And don’t even get me started on tofu.

How America Killed Soy Milk – Eater