By Bill Roberts
I’m thinking about beans. Not red beans, green beans or lima beans. Not navy beans, pinto beans or prison beans either. And not lentils, black-eyed peas or goober peas (a.k.a. peanuts), which are just beans masquerading as fancy legumes.
No, I’m thinking about soybeans. Not just any old soybeans, the kind some people grow for cattle feed. I’ve been thinking about the prince of beans—Japan’s rich, black soybeans. Did I also say organically grown? That makes them the Crown Prince of Beans.
Organic, black soybeans are to legumes what free-range chicken is to fowl. They are a delicacy used to make the richest soy sauce, the thickest miso soup, and the silkiest tofu. They also make a tasty snack. If you pop one dry-roasted black soybean into your mouth, you can’t stop. They predate Orville Redenbacher popcorn by about 1,000 years.
I’m thinking about black soybeans because I recently spent a half day working with several Oomoto members in an organic black soybean field in bottom land surrounded by hills that turned red, orange and gold before our eyes. It is a lush area west of Kameoka called Tamba. Not the Tamba region known for ceramics, but Tamba, the town, which is known for farm produce. It holds farmers markets four days a week, including one for organic produce. When we stopped there on our way to the field it was not the organic day. We did, however, did see round white turnips as big as volleyballs and white daikon radishes as thick as a sumo wrestler’s leg.
On a crisp Sunday in November, under clouds that threatened rain but only sniffled a bit before lunch, about 20 of us–men, women and children–piled into a small bus and drove an hour to Tamba to work in a field that belongs to Kiichiro Nagasawa. Nagasawa is long-time Oomoto member who sells some of his organic produce at Domo, an organic food store Oomoto owns in Kameoka.
Like California yuppies, snooty Parisians and politically green Germans, affluent Japanese are going organic. It costs more but the results are worth it. Hisae Kishine, an Oomoto member and a chef who does a brisk takeout food business in Tokyo, attributes her success to using the best produce, including organic whenever she can. “It costs a little more, but my customers are willing to pay,” she told me through an interpreter. I met Hisae on a recent trip to Hokkaido.
For Oomoto, organic is part of the spiritual path. Oomoto Co-Founder, Onisaburo Deguchi wrote that creating peace on earth begins with each individual making inner peace. One aspect of inner peace, he wrote, is proper nourishment. Onisaburo died in 1948, long before organic was in vogue. Contemporary Oomoto members interpret his teaching to mean organic food is a spiritual asset in a chemically saturated world.
One day each autumn, members from Kameoka make an excursion to help Nagasawa or another farmer who grows organic produce. This year, we spent two hours clearing leaves and stalks so someone else could come through and pick the beans. Nagasawa’s no fool; he wasn’t about to leave the crown jewels to be picked by rookie field hands on a Sunday lark. We were there for the experience, the camaraderie and whatever spiritual uplift an organic farm might give us.
Organic has become more important to Oomoto in recent years. The Domo store is about five years old. The kitchen staff in Kameoka tries to use organic produce and lists such ingredients when it uses them on its daily menu. About six months ago Oomoto named as chief director Kunihiko Shimamoto, a retired agricultural researcher who developed a system for naturally replenishing enzymes in the soil, a crucial process for successful long-term organic farming. It is unclear what impact his leadership might have on the organic movement here.
Kaname Igarashi, a farmer and Oomoto priest, is familiar with the Shimamoto process. Igarashi raises soybeans, rice, wheat, daikon and other vegetables on his 20 hectare (45.4 acre) farm in Hokkaido. Igarashi, whom I met on my recent trip to Hokkaido, has farmed for 25 years. He recently began to try Shimamoto’s methods. He says the key to successful organic farming is to reduce the need for chemicals by strengthening the crop’s natural resistance to disease and pestilence. Shimamoto’s process helps.
Igarashi hopes eventually to grow as much as 20 percent of his crops organically. He has some doubt about his ability to recover the extra expense of organ farming, so he’s cautious. He has no doubt organic tastes better. “If you bite into a chemically fertilized raw soybean it tastes bitter,” Igarashi tells me through an interpreter. “If you bite into an organic one, it is sweet. You can definitely taste the difference.”
In Nagasawa’s field near Tamba, we did our own taste testing. After working for an hour we broke for tea and a snack—boiled black soybeans in the pod. If you’ve ever been to Georgia maybe you’ve had boiled peanuts, which are tasty little morsels. They don’t match the mildly sweet, richly textured boiled black soybeans Nagasawa served. After two or three you could almost feel a protein rush.
Boiled black soybeans weren’t the only fare Nagasawa fed us. After the tea break, we worked for another hour and then had lunch. It consisted of thick miso soup with tofu and mushrooms cooked on an open fire in the field, and a seasonal delicacy—matsutake rice.
The matsutake (or matsudake) is Japan’s version of Europe’s truffle. Matsutake grow wild in the wooded hills, in moist, dark nooks known only to matsutake hunters, who are territorial about the areas they scour. These mushrooms are rare and very expensive—a few ounces cost several hundred dollars. In a country with little crime, matsutake theft is a problem. Nagasawa happens to be a matsutake wholesaler so he could take as many matsutake as he wanted from his own stockpile and serve them to his guests. Which is what he did. The rice is cooked in soy sauce with flecks of matsutake. Farmhands have never eaten so well.
As much as I like soybeans, I was glad Nagasawa did not serve natto. Natto are fermented soybeans, another staple here. They taste okay and are a good source of protein. The problem is the texture. Thoughts of dog drool or pond scum come to mind, but the polite way to put it is this: The fermentation process leaves a scummy residue that includes long thin sticky threads. Just getting the residue-coated beans from the bowl into your mouth is a challenge. The Japanese swirl and twirl their chopsticks in midair to break the natto strings as they transport the beans to their mouths.
God had a sense of humor when he invented natto. If the organic black soybean is the Crown Prince then natto is surely the Clown Prince of Beans.