Unripe, Green, and….Delicious!
In the heart of summer, when the sun's rays are beating down relentlessly and all you want is to find a nice bit of shade (or a/c), the delicious legumes called edamame are coming into season. The light, savory taste accompanying an icy brew will whet your appetite and pull you out of the summer doldrums. Edamame is the snack of choice and practically inevitable appetizer at many izakayas and other traditional eating establishments in Japan, regardless of the season, but they have also found their way onto the family dining table. What is the story about these little green gems that everyone keeps reaching for until the bowl is empty?
Just What Are Edamame?
To the uninitiated, these green, slightly fuzzy, odd shaped pods don't look very tasty. And if not taught how to eat them, you may end up with a mouthful of tough, fibrous material (personal experience). Not all of us know that the pods themselves are inedible; they only house the edible portion, which is made up of tasty little green beans which are squeezed out (use your teeth or your fingers!) and eaten.
The word edamame is made up of two kanji characters, eda meaning branch or twig, and mame meaning legume, or more specifically, bean in this case. Edamame, refers to the unripe soybean in its pod which is picked while still green, as well as the pod which holds the beans. If allowed to ripen fully, the beans would develop into the soybean (daizu in Japanese) which can then be processed for soymilk, soy sauce, miso, natto, etc. The immature soybean is called edamame (in English, as well), and the mature one is called soybean. It's not clear when Japanese people began eating edamame, but it has been presumed that they were being eaten sometime during the Nara period (710-794). There also exist written references of their being presented as gifts during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) and as snacks for alcoholic beverages during ceremonies at Buddhist temples during the Muromachi period (1337-1573).
Furthermore, there is documentation from the Edo period (1603-1868) mentioning, "In the summertime, one can see edamame vendors peddling their goods in town," but these were still attached to the twig, then boiled and sold, unlike today where the individual pods are detached from the branch and blanched or boiled in salted water. In those days, everyone from youngsters to adults enjoyed snacking on the pods attached to the twig while strolling along, which is interesting, as the Japan of today frowns upon eating while walking along the street. From that point on, we can say that edamame was considered a type of fast food for the general populace. Originally, they were called something like "beans on a stick," but it's said that term was the precursor of the word edamame.
Nutritionally speaking, edamame are a combination of the good points of both legumes and vegetables; they also, like soybeans, contain high quality protein and lots of dietary fiber and the merits of green-yellow veggies which include a goodly amount of vitamins and carotene. The especially plentiful Vitamin B aids in changing sugars into energy, activating one's metabolism, and helping to protect from summer fatigue. Edamame also have immunity boosting Vitamin A, and good-for-the-skin Vitamin C. It's interesting to note that these vitamins are NOT present in the matured soybean.
Edamame also help protect against menopausal symptoms and lifestyle related diseases by virtue of the isoflavones they contain. They are said to be good for brain function and concentration, as well as helping to eliminate oxygen free radicals thanks to polyphenols, and the potassium in edamame aids in the exertion of puffiness inducing sodium. What else? Edamame contain methionine, an amino acid which helps to break down alcohol and relieve the burden on the liver, as well as protect against the dreaded futsukayoi, or hangover. In short, it makes a great deal of sense that edamame should be the standard snack for summertime (or anytime) beer (or other alcoholic beverage) guzzling. Of course, edamame's healthful qualities benefit everyone, even those who don't imbibe, helping us beat the summer fatigue brought on by summer heat, and giving our health agenda a nice power-up!
Edamame Gone Global
Despite edamame's long history in Japan, it wasn't commonly eaten or cultivated in other countries except a handful of Asian nations, including China (where they are known as mao dou), Thailand and Vietnam until recently. With the improvements in freezing techniques, frozen edamame have been exported to other parts of the world, such as Europe and North America, and their almost ubiquitous appearance at sushi bars and other Japanese restaurants have helped to advance their ever broadening popularity. And, as of late, they have become recognized more as a healthy food than as a simple snack or appetizer to accompany alcohol. From the period of January to November 2013, Google announced that of the keywords for Japanese cuisine that were searched via their seach engine, the most googled item was sushi, with edamame in second place, and from that Google concluded: "…it is likely that interest is growing regarding edamame as a healthy food." While riding on the tide of well-regarded Japanese cuisine, it seems like edamame is enjoying a sudden big jump in popularity among folks concerned with eating healthily!
The season for fresh edamame is summer, but because of low yield in the U.S., it is difficult to find them in the markets. However, edamame that have been frozen after being freshly picked and lightly boiled with a bit of salt (non-salt versions also available) are available in supermarkets year-round. Some of these frozen edamame do not need to be reboiled before eating; simply running them under cold water, or letting them thaw at room temperature or putting them in the microwave for a bit is sufficient (follow package directions). Shelled edamame are also sold, and these are quick and easy additions to salads, stir-fries, stews, soups, etc. They bring a bright splash of color to chirashi sushi, mazegohan and box lunches, and can be used as garnishes for many other dishes, too!
Here's a quick and easy summertime recipe to get you started on your edamame eating adventure.
Cold Edamame Soup (Serves 2)
8 oz edamame in the pod
2/3 cup water
1 tsp granular consommé
6 3/4 Tbsp milk
Salt, pepper to taste
1 Tbsp heavy cream
1) Thaw edamame according to directions and pop beans out of pod. Remove any residue of the thin membrane around the beans.
2) In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil and dissolve the consommé. Add salt and pepper to taste, then turn heat off and let sit to cool for a few minutes, until it is still warm, but not boiling hot.
3) Put 1) and 2) in a blender and puree for 20-30 seconds. When it looks smooth, strain into a separate bowl and stir in the milk.
4) Ladle into chilled serving bowl and drizzle heavy cream decoratively on top.
Note: Mixing the milk with the other ingredients in the blender creates bubbles, so always add milk after blending. Adding the cream lastly is for decoration and also to add richness to the soup.