About black soybean
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About black soybeans
In Japan, soybeans are known as the “meat of the field.” Soybeans come in a great variety, including white (yellow), blue, and red. Black soybeans, are of course, another variety of soybean, and as their name implies, their skin is black.
Black soybeans have been cultivated in Japan since ancient times.
The origins of black soybeans are not clear, but they are recorded as being a foodstuff in the ancient Wamyo ruijusho (935 AD) and it is believed that black soybeans were already being cultivated in Japan’s Heian period.
It is said that during the Warring States period (late 1400s-late 1500), some samurai and ninja carried “Hyourougan,” homemade medicinal balls composed primarily of black soybeans in case provisions ran out during warfare.
Since ancient times, Japanese people have known the medicinal and other healthy effects of black soybeans. From example, the Edo period medicinal herb book Honzo komoku keimo (1805) noted that “What are called ‘soybeans’ in Japanese are yellow soybeans for making miso. In a prescription, ‘soybeans’ always refers to black soybeans.”
In Japan, black soybeans boiled with sugar are considered an essential part of any New Year’s feast. In the Muromachi period, however, when black soybeans first became a part of New Year’s cuisine, there was no sugar. Instead, people ate a dish called “zazen-mame” – black soybeans served with konyaku jelly.
Until the mid-Edo period, much of Japanese food culture and traditional customs were derived from the Imperial court, which was centered on Kyoto. At that time, black soybeans were primarily cultivated in Tamba Province, which neighbored Kyoto. These Tamba black soybeans were given as a gift to the Imperial court each year where they were eaten on New Year’s, and it is believed that the custom of eating black soybeans on New Year’s spread throughout the nation thereafter.
In the late Edo period, the practice of eating black soybeans boiled in soy sauce and sugar as part of a New Year’s feast become widespread. The late Edo period illustrated book Ehon Edo fuzoku ezu noted that black soybeans were widely eaten at the time as part of New Year’s feasts: “Throughout Edo, no matter how poverty-stricken the home, on the three mornings of New Year’s Day and the following two days, Toso (spiced sake) is not served but zoni soup (...) Three dishes are served in lacquered boxes – zazen-mame (black soybeans), dried young anchovies, and herring roe.”
The reason why black soybeans are eaten as part of New Year’s feast is said to be because in ancient times Japanese people believed that the color black warded against evil and protected against disasters. They also believed that black represented health. Finally, the word for bean in Japanese, “mame,” can also mean health, and thus people ate black soybeans accordingly in home of living healthily to a ripe old age.
Black soybeans had other important meanings to the ancient Japanese people who farmed rice. According to food culture researcher Hisao Nagayama, to them, the color black represents being suntanned and having worked hard in the rice paddy. The round shape of the beans signified the sun, much like kagami-mochi rice cakes do. The word for bean, “mame,” can also mean to work diligently and to be healthy. For the ancient Japanese rice farmers, black soybeans became a part of New Year’s cuisine as a symbol representing the hope of a new year free from misfortune and the ability to work and stay healthy throughout the year.
Although just one of the many types of soybeans, there are in fact many different varieties of black soybeans grown in Japan.
Soybean Varieties in Japan and the Significance of Their Distribution, published by the Research Division of the Promotional Bureau in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in 1957, records over 30 varieties and common names of soybeans which were cultivated in Japan around 1940, revealing the wide variety of black soybean strains grown in the country since ancient times. Some examples from the book include “TAMBAGURO” (Hyogo), “Hikariguro” (Hokkaido), “Kurobitta” (Iwate), “Kurosengoku” (Iwate, Shizuoka, Kyoto, and others), and “3gou wase soybeans” (all Kyushu).
Today, the most common varieties grown are the extremely late growing TAMBAGURO (mainly cultivated in Hyogo, Kyoto, Okayama, and Shiga), and the mid-season Hikariguro (mainly planted in Hokkaido). Even so, a broad array of other strains of black soybean are also grown throughout the nation.