“Don’t eat the pod,” Toshi-san warned as he set down a small saucer of what looked like pea pods with a slight peach fuzz.
That was my first taste of edamame. It was 1987 and I was in California.
Those edamame were quite tasty…at the time. Slightly salty to the tongue, it was fun to run the pods through my teeth to pop out the green soybeans. I liked the idea of something green to go with my cold beer.
But those first edamame had certainly been frozen and who knows where they were grown. Probably on some huge factory farm. I hadn’t yet made it to Japan, so I didn’t know then how edamame should really taste.
Now that’s a whole other story…
Edamame season starts in early summer here in Japan and extends into fall. But really, edamame is all about cold beer and the hot, sultry summer. It’s just like fresh corn. You yank the whole soybean plant from the earth, strip the pods right there on the field, then run quickly to the pot of boiling water waiting in your kitchen. And just like fresh corn, the frozen or canned variety is just not at all the same. I remember the time my sons had some edamame that had been frozen without their pods. This was about 10 years ago in California at my sister’s house and the kids were eating them with Trader Joe’s Macaroni & Cheese. All the food was “organic”…whatever that means. My oldest son, Christopher looked at me with such hurt in his eyes and whispered, “Mommy, when are we going to have “real food?” I tasted the edamame and had to spit them out. Really foul stuff.
The frozen pods aren’t so bad, though they don’t have much taste—just texture—and I suppose protein.
The good news is that small farmers in the U.S. do grow soybeans and are selling edamame. Look around at the farmers’ markets and encourage your local farmers to grow them for you. And tell your farmers to “please, please pick them in the morning before coming to market.” Tell them you don’t mind the bare roots, or picking them off the branch. Tell them, it’s just like shucking the corn at the farmers’ market. It’s part of the fun. Then run, run, run to the boiling water you have left in the kitchen (attended by your faithful mate or children…or whoever) and boil them for 3 or 4 minutes before you toss them with sea salt and serve with beer.
Edamame should be an almost luminescent chartreuse green and not dull, dark or flat-colored. The inside beans should be straining against the pods. You can feel them to know more. The pods should telegraph you their freshness. Unfortunately, most soybeans in the U.S. are grown on a gigantic scale and are from genetically modified seeds that mandate the use of specific chemical fertilizers and pesticides for that particular seed. I don’t think these sound very delicious, so finding a local farmer is the ticket. Here again, though, the variety is important. Heirloom Japanese varieties will probably taste best. Some soybeans are meant to be grown in the early summer, some in mid-summer and yet others in late summer. Our grower friend Suga-san grows a pleasantly nutty variety that I love. Tadaaki’s edamame are similar and we harvest them in August.
Our friend, Matsuda-san, lives up in the hills near here. He’s another city transplant who has made a new life in our local area. He’s also a bit of a folk hero for having taken on the biggest mayonnaise producer in Japan: Kewpie Mayonnaise. They were lobbying to make it impossible for him to call his Matsuda Mayonnaise, “mayonnaise” because he uses honey instead of sugar. Funny, I never thought either had a place in mayonnaise. Though I guess the sweet balances out the vinegar for longer shelf life. Personally, I go for the traditional egg yolk, lemon juice, mustard and oil variety of homemade mayonnaise. But that’s another story.
We do a Slow Food Edamame Picking Event at Matsuda-san’s place in early October every year because his area traditionally grows the late variety of soybeans. We all pile into small trucks and bounce across the land to his edamame field not too far away. We pull a big section of plants and then strip them right there so they can mulch back into the land. He leaves the rest to be harvested as soybeans and he uses those throughout the winter. Kids love to help and it’s great fun working in the warm fall sun, on the side of a green hill overlooking the valley. Back at Matsuda-san’s little mayonnaise factory and organic café, we boil the beans in batches over a wood fire and make pizza in Matsuda-san’s home-built brick pizza oven. Sometimes we roast chickens. Microbrewery beer on tap is always a must…Did I mention that already?
You boil the edamame for about 3-4 minutes depending on the bean, scoop them out with a strainer, toss them with sea salt and serve immediately in a crockery bowl. The edamame should be so hot you can barely touch them. Grab a handful and eat quickly because they cool quickly. Don’t forget to prepare a cold beer alongside and a bowl for the empty pods. Boil in batches for a big crowd so you can keep serving them hot. If you have any left over, save the edamame pods in a Ziploc, then pop them the next day and fold into a vegetable salad, potato salad or any curry or stew-like dish.