Do people in Asia drink soy milk?
July 25, 2006 6:24 AM   Subscribe

Did/do people in Asia drink soy milk?

Soy consumption in the west has been under attack (for example here). One of the arguments the anti-soy people often mention is that in Asia, soy is only used as a condiment. three pieces of tofu in soup, that kind of thing. The soy they do eat, is always highly fermented, they say.

My question: is that true? Do people in Asia (I realize that the answer will differ depending on which country we're talking) not drink soy milk at all? How about 50 years ago? Do they throw away the whey when making tofu? Do they throw away the okara?

I am interested in neutral sources or personal experiences. A webpage that simply states "People in Asia do X" is not very useful because there is lots of contradictory information on this subject.
posted by davar to Health & Fitness (32 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Cute old asian men in Vietnamese restaurants in Boston's Chinatown drink soy milk from little bottles.
posted by sohcahtoa at 6:28 AM on July 25, 2006

Not true -- although often it's not drunk as milk in a glass or on cereal, but as a bowl on its own, often warm and salty or sweet, with Chinese-style "breads" on the side or in the dish. It's called "dou jiang" in Mandarin, "dau zeong" in Cantonese, which doesn't really translate as soy milk but more "bean sauce".
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 6:29 AM on July 25, 2006

Here in Japan cow milk is probably more commonly drunk. Funnily enough it wasn't until Starbucks arrived that you saw soy lattes appear.

Elementary kids drink milk not soy milk at school everyday. Although there are dishes which use it specifically I believe.
posted by gomichild at 6:42 AM on July 25, 2006

One of the arguments the anti-soy people often mention is that in Asia, soy is only used as a condiment. three pieces of tofu in soup, that kind of thing.

I don't recall ever seeing soy milk in Japan, but I can tell you with certainty that that argument is total bull. Take a big old block of raw tofu, add chopped green onion, bonito flakes, and soy sauce to taste, and there's a side dish I was served quite often while I was living there. I'm still fond of it, for that matter. And have these anti-soy people ever heard of edamame? Whole soybeans, still in the pod. Steam or boil them until they're tender, sprinkle with salt, and eat the beans (but not the pods) with one hand while you down a beer with the other. It's a bar snack, and a tasty one.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:52 AM on July 25, 2006

I buy plain soy milk at my local Asian market. That article was interesting-- it did make me wonder why the author didn't discuss what is to me the most insidious part of the soy milk explosion-- the enormous amount of sugar that is added to mask the flavor of the soy for Western palates. (Of course they call it "cane juice" not sugar.)
posted by miss tea at 6:53 AM on July 25, 2006

They do sell soy milk all over the place in Japan, though cow milk may be more popular. My host was fond of the little soy milk drink boxes.
posted by Alison at 6:59 AM on July 25, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far. The article I linked isn't really anti-soy, it is a bit more balanced than the real anti-soy articles out there, but it still mentioned the People in Asia consume very little soy thing. I have been wondering if that is true ever since I read the first anti soy article.

Faint of Butt, FWIW, this article actually mentions that edamame is not that bad because it are young soybeans that are lower in estrogens.

I agree with miss tea. Often "healthy" soy drinks have as much sugar as soft drinks. Another problem is that "healthy" soy burgers have lots of salt, oils etc.
posted by davar at 7:23 AM on July 25, 2006

Been drinking soy milk for years and so do my cousins. It is not chugged down but is a nice drink without sugar. I have been seeing people from various Asian countries buying soy milk all my life in the US and remember it vividly in Japan, Viet Nam, Thailand, Korea and China.

You can buy half gallon jusgs of it fresh made in Oakland Chinatown in various markets.

If you want vitamins added to your soymilk you are kind of stuck with the large commercial brands who add lots of sugar. However, you can get soy milk without sugar at regular markets without enhancements.
posted by jadepearl at 7:24 AM on July 25, 2006

The complete opposite of the truth. Soy is a basic staple in the Far East, and Chinese people drink gallons of dou jiang (as did I when I was living in Taiwan—a tall glass of dou jiang and a bready thing makes an excellent breakfast).
posted by languagehat at 7:27 AM on July 25, 2006

Oh, and:

The soy they do eat, is always highly fermented, they say.

What stupidity. The best doufu/tofu is absolutely fresh, and I've often eaten it plain, just like that. (I also like plain rice, which my wife thinks is weird. But I was born in Japan, so I can't help it.)
posted by languagehat at 7:29 AM on July 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

The big Korean supermarkets where I live always have soy milk for sale, and contrary to miss tea's contention, it's mostly very much sweeter than American versions.
posted by OmieWise at 7:53 AM on July 25, 2006

Yeah, that's crazy. In my half-Malaysian-Chinese family, we eat fresh tofu and drink soy milk as a staple. All you have to do is go to an Asian supermarket and see the huge tubs of tofu for sale to see how wrong that claim is.
posted by josh at 7:57 AM on July 25, 2006

Personal experience about Japan here.

I'm not exactly a granola-type, but I lurve the taste of soy milk and have of those drink boxes that Alison mentions, pretty much every day. All convenience stores carry it, and supermarkets offer diverse brands to choose from, ranging from thick, tasty & totally plain to sweet-but-not-too-sweet. (Link is to a page of thumbnails of mostly Japanese cartons of soy milk, from a milk carton collector's site)

Yuba is also a favorite around here. It's basically sheets of tofu skin skimmed off the top of a vat of boiling soy milk. Mmm.

There's also soy milk shabu shabu, pudding, "cheesecake" and more. (All Japanese links with photos.)

The Japanese are all about tofu et al. as it is, but packaged soy products are being marketed toward the health/beauty conscious these days... kind of like in America.
posted by QueSeraSera at 7:59 AM on July 25, 2006

davar "Did/do people in Asia drink soy milk?"

Japan: They definitely do now. Whether they did or not, my wife can't attest to (she apparently wasn't aware of its existence as a child, so if they did drink it 20 years ago, it was primarily adults that drank it, and not kids). However, note that soy milk as a replacement for cow milk really only started when Starbucks got big.

"[A]nti-soy people often mention is that in Asia, soy is only used as a condiment."

Japan: Hardcore untrue. As Faint of Butt points out, a big hunk of tofu, with a little bit of dried bonito, green onion, wasabi, and soy sauce, is a common dish. And don't get the wrong idea: the tofu is a big block, the bonito et al are just a topping.

"Do they throw away the whey when making tofu? Do they throw away the okara?"

Japanese are to soy beans as Apache were to buffaloes: Every part is used, nothing goes to waste.
posted by Bugbread at 8:05 AM on July 25, 2006

AskMetaFilter: to soy beans as Apache were to buffaloes: Every part is used, nothing goes to waste.
posted by OmieWise at 8:42 AM on July 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

When I visited Shanghai for two weeks, my girlfriend's grandmother made fresh soy milk every morning. I can attest to what miss tea said: it was boiling hot and completely unsweetened. It took getting used to since all I'd had here in the States was Silk.

My absolute favorite dish was this spicy tofu soup we had for breakfast the first day I got there. There were two things I had at pretty much every meal--soy, and a whole fresh fish of some type, since it was New Year's.

Actually, if I had to pick a surprisingly un-popular food, it would have to be rice. They eat rice, sure, but not nearly as much as I'd thought.
posted by Khalad at 8:43 AM on July 25, 2006

I don't know if this has been mentioned, but soy beans are sometimes eaten straight out of the shell, warmed and salted. Not unlike eating peanuts, I guess.. I believe it is a Japanese and/or Korean thing, but I learned it from Hong Kong people.
posted by Chuckles at 8:44 AM on July 25, 2006

Some scattered thoughts: I lived in Vietnam and Thailand, and soy milk as beverage sold pretty well, though not as well as I'd expected, given the common lactose intolerance. Mostly sold in drink boxes, highly sweetened.

In Thailand, where they don't really distinguish breakfast foods from other foods the way we do in the US, there isn't much consumption of milk or soymilk because kids start the day with a bowl of soup or curry or khao mun gai rather than cerial.

Mmmm... khao mun gai...

As an aside, those who haven't tried Silk rally ought to. To me, it tastes just like milk, and has much less sugar than most brands. I'm not connected to the Silk folks in any way, btw.
posted by squirrel at 9:24 AM on July 25, 2006

Personal experience:

Soy milk is very, very prevalent in Japan, available for purchase at any convenience store in both small and large sizes. That said, I'm not sure how popular it actually is. It seems like it isn't common for young people to drink it, as they prefer cow's milk, though I was told that the older generation prefered soy milk to cow milk (unsurprising to me, as their flavor of soy milk seems to fit in well with what pleases the standard Japanese pallate).

I was somewhat interested in this when I lived there as I hate cow's milk and was looking for alternatives, but I found the tounyuu in Japan to be almost undrinkable as it has a much more bland taste than the soy milk I'm used to drinking in the US (Silk, for example).

And yes, highly fermented soy products are everywhere, too. Natto is the first thing that comes to mind. Breakfast of champions!!
posted by dead_ at 10:03 AM on July 25, 2006

The National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services recently issued an expert panel report on Soy Formula (pdf) for infants. The conclusions are summarized here

Note that when you are talking about potential endocrine disruptors such as phytoestrogens and xenoestrogens, it's important to distinguish exposure that occurs while the organism is developing (e.g. in the womb, infancy, or childhood) versus exposure when the organism is mature. Developmental exposure is more likely to have significant or permanent effects.
posted by alms at 10:26 AM on July 25, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks everybody. I think I get the picture. I really appreciate all your answers. It is great to be able to get answers from people who actually know, instead of repeated hearsay arguments.

I am surprised that cow's milk is so popular in Japan, I would never have guessed that, I always thought that that was a western thing.
posted by davar at 11:45 AM on July 25, 2006

Cow's milk is also relatively popular as yogurt in northern China -- it's usually a bit runnier in texture, like those drinkable yogurts like Yop.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 11:47 AM on July 25, 2006

Just anecdotal evidence here, but whenever I go back to visit China, dou-jiang was a staple breakfast food. The strange thing is, I don't think they think of soy milk as a substitute for milk because of lactose intolerance. No one in my family there believes in lactose intolerancy. They just think the loose bowels is a "feature" of milk and often recommend it for constipation.
posted by nakedsushi at 12:05 PM on July 25, 2006

I grew up in Hong Kong. My grandma often brought me to the market's "soy shop" where all they sell is soy milk, fresh tofu, fermented tofu, pre-fried tofu clusters, flattened fried tofu, etc etc.

Since there are a lot of buddhists living in Asia, soy is a staple (at least out of 2 days of the month). Yes, we had soy milk all the time - I used to order it in diners in HK where it's either served cold and sweet in a glass or hot and salted in a bowl. We have it in soups (like dumplings) or processed to look like "fake" meats. "Vegetarian goose/duck" and stuff like that.
posted by Sallysings at 12:34 PM on July 25, 2006

all I'd had here in the States was Silk

Silk makes an unsweetened variety - retails in a dark green container.
posted by meehawl at 12:53 PM on July 25, 2006

Additionally, on reading the referenced article, I noticed this little throwaway item:

This rapid hydrolysis method uses the enzyme glutamase as a reactor and creates large amounts of the unnatural form of glutamate that is found in MSG.

Anytime see a reference to the "unnaturalness" of the sodium salt of glutamic acid I worry about the slant of the rest of the article. Whining about MSG in fermented soy is the nutritive equivalent of wearing aluminium foil over your head to keep out the rays.

It's all about the umami.
posted by meehawl at 1:08 PM on July 25, 2006

Laotian gal I work with says they drink soy milk there. All my local Asian grocers have small plastic bottles of fresh soy milk, and cans of soy milk in varying flavours from all over the continent.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:21 PM on July 25, 2006

Just adding "they do it in Vietnam too" to the list, as if you needed any more confirmation. They drink it in little bottles like you might drink a coke or seven-up and they buy it in two-litre containers for home consumption. Comes in sweetened, unsweetened and "hint of vanilla" flavours.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 4:55 PM on July 25, 2006

My wife is Japanese. She tells me that soy milk was not commonly consumed in Japan until about 20 years ago, but soy products of all kinds were, such as tofu, aburaage (thinly sliced and deep fried tofu), atsuage (thick deep fried tofu), yuba (think layers of soy milk skimmed from the surface and dried), and more. There are other soy products like kinako (dried and powdered soy bean) which is used a lot for sweets. From what I have observed of my in-laws, Japanese people eat a ton of soy products.

She makes her own tofu now that she is exiled in Europe. It's delicious. God bless her.
posted by derMax at 8:31 PM on July 25, 2006

yuba (thin* layers of soy milk skimmed from the surface and dried)

Also, she throws away the whey when she makes tofu since it has a bitter taste from the coagulant used called nigari, which literally means "bitter". She keeps the okara though. It shows up in the oddest places, like meatballs.
posted by derMax at 8:33 PM on July 25, 2006

In Thailand ... there isn't much consumption of milk or soymilk

I have to disagree with this, soy milk is very popular in Thailand and comes in both packaged store varities, in bottles or soft boxes, or from street vendors.

From a Vitamilk vendor:
Established in Thailand almost 50 years ago, Vitamilk is the one of the
most popular soymilk brands in Southeast Asia. This year, Hoo Hing is
proud to introduce this high quality nutritious soybean drink to our
health conscious customers. Soymilk has long been established in the
Southeast Asian market, it is known for its benefit of reducing the risk
of cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis and in controlling diabetes.
Without any cholesterol and lactose, Vitamilk is made from whole first
class soybean, which contains high proteins and vitamins. It is good for
lactose sensitive individuals, health conscious individuals and great
for everyday consumption. Vitamilk comes in 300ml glass bottle; it is
rich, thirst quenching, creamy with a touch of sweetness in the taste.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 12:28 PM on July 26, 2006

Part of this question, implied by the "did/do" is whether soy is a historical part of diets, not just whether Asians consume it now. The author of this book, who I heard on the radio, said that soy was not in the human diet until 3,000 years ago, and soy milk was not in Asia until the 20th century. I don't know if she's right but it's one informed opinion you can read more about.

Incidentally she brought it up in the context that people who champion soy like to boast about how it's been a staple forever in Asia. Her opinion is that soy is not healthy, and that the Asian connection is very tenuous. Condiment-only, basically.
posted by scarabic at 8:27 PM on October 25, 2006

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