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Exploring Edamame: History, Health Benefits, and 5 Recipes

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Edamame (green soy beans) are healthy and can be used in many creative recipes.

Edamame (green soy beans) are healthy and can be used in many creative recipes.

Are Edamame and Soy Beans the Same Thing?

The soybean plant originated in Asia, cultivated by the Chinese at least 7,000 years ago. It was dependable, prolific, filling, and a substantial source of nutrition. The beans became a staple throughout much of the region, gaining popularity with the spread of Buddhism. One of the eight tenets of the Buddhist belief is "right action," which includes that one does not harm living things. Buddhists adhere, therefore, to a vegetarian diet.

Though supremely nutritious soybeans are also very “beany” (fibrous and gas-producing). However the Chinese found several methods to tame the beast.

  • The beans could be cooked and soaked to create milk that could then be coaxed into cheese-like curds. This is tofu.
  • They recognized that introducing microbes into a mash of beans could create unique, tasty, savory flavors. This was the origin of soy sauce, miso, and tempeh.
  • And, they found that if the beans were harvested before they reached maturity they were a bit sweeter, more tender, less gassy, and not so “beany.” This, my friends, is edamame.
Edamame in the shell

Edamame in the shell

Soybeans Have Been in Japan for Centuries

There is no record of when green soybeans were introduced to Japan, but the etymology of the word edamame is Japanese (eda means "beans" and mame means "branch"). In fact, according to the Japan Times:

"The habit of eating fresh green soybeans seems to have started in the mid Heian Period (794-1185). Records kept by the naizenshi, the Imperial court’s comestibles department, note the purchase of 'bunches of raw (fresh) soy beans.' Then, as now, green soybeans were usually sold on their stems, since they spoil so easily once picked."

Charles C. Georgeson was a professor of agriculture at the Tokyo Imperial University in Tokyo, and it was he who introduced the large-seed soybean to America. Unlike soy plants grown for cooking oil or livestock feed, edamame has been cultivated to be sweeter and plumper. William Morse of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Forage Crop Investigations compared them to lima beans or butter beans (“Soy Beans in the Cotton Belt,” January 1915). He continued to promote the green soybean in more than 20 U.S. government publications. In 1934 several varieties were evaluated at state agricultural experiment stations.

Finally, in 1935 Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (yes, that Kellogg of Battle Creek, Michigan) began to experiment with canning green vegetable soybeans. During World War II they were grown in Victory Gardens in the Midwest, but when the war ended, interest in the vegetable all but disappeared.

But then in September 1980 . . .

The sushi “boom” in California begins when the very popular TV miniseries and epic drama Shogun, based on the novel by James Clavell, created a great interest in traditional Japanese culture among Americans. With the sushi, they drank Japanese beer and saké. In America, beer is usually served with peanuts. But, true to tradition, Japanese restaurants served edamamé, free of charge, with the beer. So the success of sushi, Japanese beers, Japanese saké, and edamamé, are all tied in together.

— William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, “History of Edamame," SoyInfo Center 2009

How to Grow Soybeans

The soybean plant is a bush bean legume that grows best in warm weather and full sun. (Bush beans are compact; the other type of bean plant is vining and forms long tendrils that wind and cling to supporting poles). The seeds of soybeans should not be planted until soil temperatures are at least 60 degrees F. The stems, leaves, and pods of the plants are fuzzy, about two to four inches in length, each containing two to four seeds or beans. Loose, well-drained soil with organic matter is a necessity. Unlike other beans, the soybean seed should not be presoaked, and don't plant them with onions or garlic.

All of the beans mature at the same time. To harvest, uproot the entire plant and hang it upside-down to dry. Soybeans should never be eaten raw.

  • Planting time: 2 to 3 weeks after the final frost
  • Depth for planting: 1 to 2 inches deep
  • Spacing: 2 to 4 inches apart in rows 24 to 30 inches apart
  • Soil pH: 6.0
  • Harvest: Reach maturity in about 100 days
Soybeans growing in the field (notice the fuzzy stems and pods)

Soybeans growing in the field (notice the fuzzy stems and pods)


Epic spinach edamame dip

Epic spinach edamame dip

1. Epic Spinach Edamame Dip

Tess is the "Blender Girl" and author of the Blender Girl Cookbook. She is dedicated to eating healthy whole foods without preservatives, like this spinach edamame dip. It's creamy and packed with flavor from fresh ingredients. Tahini provides a nutty toasty flavor, lemon adds tang, and red pepper flakes contribute a pop of heat (but not too much). It's a guilt-free, super-healthy, antioxidant-rich, nutrient-dense powerhouse.

Roasted edamame

Roasted edamame

2. Roasted Edamame

Roasting edamame creates a snack that's tasty and healthy. This guilt-free pleasure is low in calories but chock full of protein, fiber, and calcium.

Edamame black bean salad

Edamame black bean salad

3. Edamame Black Bean Salad

This refreshing edamame black bean salad is so easy to make and a much healthier option than potato salad at your summer cookout. It can also double as a salsa.

Chinese chicken salad

Chinese chicken salad

4. Chinese Chicken Salad

I love the versatility of this Chinese chicken salad. I don't care for romaine lettuce; chopped baby kale is a great (and healthy) substitute. You can add more crunch with diced cucumber, or contribute a touch of sweetness by including some mandarin orange segments.

Jessica cooked boneless skinless chicken breasts for this salad, but you could use leftover rotisserie chicken, leftover roast pork, leftover pulled pork, or even make this totally vegetarian with golden sauteed tofu or tempeh.

The magic of this dish is the vinaigrette full of Asian flavors from sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, and garlic.

Vegan poke bowl

Vegan poke bowl

5. Vegan Poke Bowl

Vegan poke sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it? Thomas (creator of the blog Gastroplant) enjoys boldly flavored but totally plant-based recipes. He uses lots of imagination (and his photographs are absolutely stunning!).

In his brief biography he tells his readers:

"I lived for several months in Europe (Greece, then Germany) and a few years in China. Traveling around the world I’ve always appreciated the vibrancy of the experience. The sounds, sights, and smells combine to make travel very sensual. Cooking is a way to recreate some of that vibrancy and excitement."

His vegan poke bowl certainly lives up to those goals.


© 2020 Linda Lum