Beer with Beans (Japan’s Obsession with Edamame)

One important Japanese custom is applying poetry and a penchant for art in everything they do, especially when it comes to food and drink.

Therefore, they enjoy eating certain foods at specific times of the year. One of the most popular of these is edamame and beer, especially between June and September.

During the extreme sticky heat of a Japanese summer, locals love to consume beer and edamame. The combination is nutritious, helps keep up the electrolytes, and provides vitamins, especially when a whole meal isn’t desirable. The proteins in edamame help temper the alcohol and prevent dehydration.

About Otsumami And Beer

Beer is a fan favorite in Japan. But, with the Japanese penchant for food and relaxation, they serve otsumami (おつまみ), or drinking snacks.

Otsumami is a type of snack, called sakana (肴) that accompanies an alcoholic beverage. These are popular at restaurants and bars, which the Japanese dub izakaya (枝豆).

The word otsumami derives from tsumamu (つまむ), which is the verb “to grab.” This references food that’s fast, quick, and small yet substantial.

Sakana is traditional snack food with the intention of drinking alcohol. But, for those aware of the Japanese language, this is the same pronunciation as it is for fish.

Snacks in General

This stems from the traditional function of language in Japan to serve double entendres. Fish and seafood have always been the classic sakana served with sake. But, the term grew to encompass a whole classification of snacks appropriate to a host of varying alcohols.

In regards to beer, the otsumami of choice is often edamame or soybeans. However, it can also be something like fried chicken (kara-age; から揚げ), corn on the cob and a host of other delectable bites.

But edamame served in bars and taverns tends to be the top choice in conjunction with beer. This is because of how well it pairs with the crisp and refreshing taste of beer. Plus, it’s easy to make and inexpensive to buy.

The Story of Edamame in Japan

If you’ve ever eaten tofu or soy sauce, you probably already know these contain soybeans. Edamame is a particular type of soybean, which is very soft and easier to eat whole than other kinds.

This is because they are younger and more immature.

Edamame is whole beans that look a little like green peas in a pod. About three beans reside within a single pod and they’re chocked full of nutrients.  

Edamame contains things like amino acids, protein, dietary fiber, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and others. These work together to protect the liver and some say can prevent hangovers.

History of Edamame

The characters for edamame in Japanese are 枝 (stem or twig)豆 (bean) and translate to “bean stem” or “twig bean.”

This is a very traditional food, with estimates placing the arrival of edamame from China to Japan around 540 AD. There’s a trade-in agricultural commodities guide providing the first written account of it from 927 AD.

During the Edo Period (1603 to 1868 AD), edamame became Japan’s first version of “fast food.” People would boil soybean pods and eat them while walking down the street still attached to their branches.

Edo Era Japan Museum Model

Since the heavy Buddhist influence dominated Japanese culture at the time, meat consumption was largely prohibited.

Therefore, soybeans became an important meat replacement. While it doesn’t provide the symphony of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients meat does, soybeans do have plenty of proteins to suffice. Plus it’s a great supplement when eaten in combination with rice, which lacks many nutrients, to begin with.

Beer’s Pervasive Popularity

While many otsumami like edamame were always an accompaniment to rice wine or sake, beer grew in popularity. Ever since 1959, the Japanese have become one of the leading importers of beer while also devising a few of their own brands.

Some Americans might recognize Sapporo or Kirin served at Asian restaurants and other drinking establishments with an Asian theme.

But there are others in the US market such as Asahi and Suntory. However, Japan’s love affair with beer is its own subculture within the country itself.

While they often prefer light lagers and pilsners, the Japanese have another type of beer they call happōshu (発泡酒), “bubbly low-malt beer” or happōsei (発泡性), “bubbly no-malt beer.”

These are slightly cheaper and classified as lower-rate beers. Malt beers tend to come with a higher tax and, therefore, these are more affordable.

Traditions And Preparation

The simplest preparation for edamame is to first boil them in water and then add a little salt, called shio (塩), over the top.

But it’s important to note that the Japanese mostly eat edamame when it’s in season. However, this will heavily depend on the region and prefecture.

In the northern section of the country, September is the appropriate month. But people eat edamame in June at the southern end of Japan, near Kyushu.

Part of this food ritual surrounds the belief in eating food only when in season, or shun (旬). By eating the first produce of the season, called hatsumotsu wo taberu (初物を食べる), you extend your life by 75 days.

Popularity of Beer And Edamame in Japan

Japan is not only the largest producer of edamame but they are also the largest importer. To illustrate, in 2012 alone, the Japanese consumed 932,000 tons of soybeans per the country’s Ministry of Agriculture.

This equates to about 13½ pounds per person annually. That’s how much edamame the Japanese consume each year.

Restaurants And Izakaya (Local Bars)

Edamame is a crowning feature at many dining and drinking establishments throughout Japan. In fact, edamame and beer are so popular together that many places automatically serve them.

Not only does it satisfy the locals’ craving for it, but they also do this as a ploy to get people to buy more beer.

Because the lightly salted edamame provides a nice contrast to the beer, it doesn’t fill people up as much. Therefore, it develops an unending cycle of beer and bean consumption that goes on for hours.

Prepare Your Own Edamame

But, what’s fantastic about edamame is that you don’t have to travel all the way to Japan to experience it.

You can get a Japanese beer and some fresh edamame from your local grocery store. Plus, there are a number of ways you can make edamame. It’s a great accompaniment to coleslaw, salads, and rice.

You simply boil some water in a medium-sized saucepan. In the meantime, separate the edamame pods from the stems and cut them at the ends, taking care to not slice into the beans.

Use large coarse sea salt and sprinkle it over the pods. Salting before boiling is entirely optional and you can save it for the end.

Place them in the water once it gets to a fast, rolling boil and cook for no more than five minutes. Cooking them any longer will result in losing flavor and nutrients.

You can add more salt once they’re done if needed. You can also serve them with hot sauce to give a bit of a spicy kick. Some people will even serve ginger-infused soy sauce on the side.

A Visit To A Japanese Edamame Farm

My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.