Soy good for you!

This unique, pulpy substance is nutritious and delicious.

If you’ve ever shopped at a Japanese grocer, you may have come across a number of enigmatic-looking food products that were difficult to identify. They might look appetizing, colourful—or sometimes they may simply leave you scratching your head. Even once you’ve learned what the products are, you still may find yourself wondering, “But how do I eat this?” or even, “Why would I eat this?” Fortunately, a lot of these foods are not only nutritious, but can be tasty additions to a number of recipes.

It’s quite possible that okara is one of those foods that you may have already seen but had no idea what it was or how to eat it. This cream-coloured, pulpy substance actually comes from soybeans and is a by-product from the production of other soy-based goods like soymilk. During the manufacturing process of soymilk or tofu, the beans are put through a filtration process that separates the liquid from the insoluble fibre. The insoluble fibre takes the form of an off-white or yellowy substance that is known as okara.

This leftover fibre is rich in nutrients and has been used for centuries for a number of purposes, from farming to food. The earliest known use of the word “okara” in the Japanese language is believed to have been in 1772, emerging from the word kara meaning “shell” or “husk” along with the honorific prefix o. The addition of the honorific at the beginning of “okara” is a signal of the importance of soybeans and soy-based products in early Japanese agriculture and food production.

In North America okara is often used as feed for livestock, but the Japanese have a number of different recipes that humans find absolutely delicious. Perhaps most popular among okara’s uses is in unohana, a savoury salad-type dish that typically includes carrots, burdock, green onions (negi), shiitake mushrooms, soy sauce (shoyu) and sweet Japanese rice wine (mirin). While okara is used in recipes to enhance the flavour of other ingredients or add nutritional value, it is generally not eaten on its own. The flavour is rather bland by itself, sometimes compared to dried-up tofu. You would also be hard-pressed to find okara included in recipes originating from Korea or China, making modern uses of okara a uniquely Japanese phenomenon.

There is often so much left over from producing other soy products that okara is extremely affordable, and at some food markets it’s even given away for free. This makes okara a simple and budget-friendly source of protein, and an easy way to increase fibre and calcium intake. Since okara is a source of protein, it tends to be popular among vegetarians and vegans. More recently, its popularity has increased as a substitute for wheat flour in making gluten-free baked goods, or as an ingredient or topping for sweet treats to add a bit of nutritional value.