Edamame, or immature green soybeans, are the quintessential snack to have with an ice-cold beer, especially in summer.
Their popularity has spread around the world in recent years, but the habit of eating fresh, salted green soybeans out of their pods has a history in Japan that dates back over 1,000 years.
Soybeans have been an important food source in East Asia since prehistoric times, and were introduced to Japan very early on too, probably in the Yayoi Period (200 B.C.-250 A.D.).
Fermented soybean products — the forerunners of foods such as miso, soy sauce and nattō, which form the backbone of traditional Japanese cuisine — came to Japan during the Yamato (300-710) and Nara (710-794) periods from the Chinese Tang Dynasty.
And tofu, one of the best-known products made with mature soy beans, was introduced to the nation later still. There are conflicting theories as to when, but the earliest written record of tofu in Japan is from 1183.
But 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.
The term “edamame” became widespread in the Edo Period (1603-1868). It is a combination of the words “eda,” meaning “stem,” and “mame,” meaning “bean.” Green soybeans were called this because the pods were cooked while still on the stems, and sold in that form in Edo (Tokyo) by street vendors. By contrast, in Osaka and Kyoto, the beans were called sayamame (pod beans), since they were cooked off the stem.
So when did edamame become paired with a cold beer? Although beer was introduced to the public by the Shibutani Brewery of Osaka in 1872, the pairing only became popular in the 1960s, when the spread of domestic refrigerators made drinking beer at home popular and pre-boiled, frozen edamame, which could be stashed in those same refrigerators, were also introduced.
Fresh edamame are in season right now. I’ve given instructions for cooking both fresh and frozen edamame, but I hope you will give fresh edamame a try. Their sweet flavor makes them really worth the trouble.
Freshly boiled edamame beans
The methods are different for fresh and frozen edamame, since the latter are pre-boiled.
• 250-300 grams edamame pods
• For fresh edamame: 60 grams salt
• For frozen edamame: 10 grams salt
• 1½ liters water
• Additional salt to taste
To cook fresh edamame:
Obtain whole edamame plants. The leaves and roots should look fresh, and the pods should be densely covered with fine hair.
Fresh edamame spoil quickly at room temperature, so once you have them home, you should cook them right away. If you can’t do that, take the pods off the stems, and store them in the refrigerator for up to 12 hours.
Pull the pods off the stems, discarding any empty or discolored ones. If they have loose dirt on them, rinse rapidly under running water and pat dry using kitchen towels.
Cut off a little of each end of the pods with kitchen scissors. Place the pods in a large bowl with half the salt. Scrub the pods vigorously with your hands using the salt, until the fine hairs have rubbed off. Let rest while the water comes to a boil.
Bring the water to a boil in a large pot and add the remaining salt. Add the bean pods and the remaining salt in the bowl that was used to scrub them. When the water comes back to a boil, cook the pods for about 5 minutes, until the beans are cooked through but still firm (start testing after 4 minutes), skimming off any surface scum.
Drain the beans and cool rapidly to fix the bright green color. Cool with a handheld fan or by aiming an electric fan at them. Optionally, sprinkle with a little additional salt to serve.
To cook frozen edamame:
Bring the water to a boil with 5 grams of salt.
Once boiling, add the frozen bean pods. When the water has come back to a boil, cook for an additional minute or so and test to see if defrosted. Drain, and cool as above.
Edamame can be frozen uncooked or parboiled. Take them off the stems and clean them with water as described above. Place the pods in a freezer on a metal tray or on aluminum foil.
Once frozen, put in freezer bags. To cook, proceed as above for fresh edamame — you don’t have to defrost them, although they are cold to handle. If you want to store them cooked, follow the steps above but drain them after 4 minutes.
Cool rapidly, and freeze.