Setsubun and Soybeans

Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!

In pre-Christian Britain the ending of winter and the coming of spring was marked by the festival of Imbolc, celebrated on the cross quarter day – halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The deprivations of winter were coming to an end, and the arrival of the season’s first lambs signalled the beginnings of spring. When Christianity took hold in Britain the festival was appropriated and incorporated into the Christian calendar as Candlemas.

All ancient cultures celebrated the patterns and importance of Nature – how could they not? – people were utterly dependent on Her capriciousness. Japan particularly, with its predisposition to earthquakes and typhoons, was constantly at the mercy of natural, or supernatural forces: so Gods had to be appeased, and demons expelled.

In Japan the festival of Setsubun takes place at the same time as Imbolc – this year the third of February, when the spiritual world and the physical world are said to be closest. Devils and bad luck are cast out by throwing roasted soy beans at imagined demons, with cries of “Oni wa soto” (“demons out”) and good fortune summoned “fuku wa uchi” (“good luck come in”).

I first witnessed its madness at a shrine in Tokyo many years ago, where huge crowds were assembled, waiting for the priest and local dignitaries to throw soy beans to the throng. As the beans were thrown the crowds heaved, bodies were elbowed aside, arms outstretched with palms held upwards, as people scrambled to catch or pick up the beans, which were now mysteriously imbued with some holy power…

Image of a setsubun ceremony in Tokyo
Setsubun ceremony in Tokyo. Image courtesy of Shirley Booth.

As well as at the temple or shrine, people also celebrate at home: roasted soybeans are thrown outside from the house, through an open doorway, symbolically pelting demons with the beans and keeping them from coming indoors. Or the beans might be scattered around the corners of the house, where demons may also lurk. And selected family members sometimes don oni demon masks and volunteer to be pelted with beans. It’s all good fun: and afterwards one is supposed to eat the roasted beans– eating the number of beans which corresponds to your age, plus one for luck.

But why soy beans?

The Soy Bean 大豆 DaiZu – translates as ‘big bean’ – because it is seen as the most important  of all beans, and is said to encompass the spirits of all other beans combined. In addition, the word for bean mame – 豆 – sounds the same as mame – (魔滅), destroying evil – so beans were deemed particularly appropriate for banishing demons. In Japanese such homophones are often employed for auspicious ends

Soy bean as Food

But the soy bean is important in Japan for reasons other than dispelling demons.

Next to rice, it is the cornerstone of Japanese cuisine, and arguably the single biggest contribution that China has made to Japan’s culinary landscape. The humble soy bean is the foundation of nearly all the foods we now associate with Japanese cuisine: soy sauce, tofu, and miso. However, because soy beans are generally not easily digestible, they are usually processed in some way.

Soya beans mixed with koji for Yaemon Tamari at Clearspring.
Soya beans mixed with koji for Yaemon Tamari at Clearspring. Image courtesy of Clearspring.

Natto is one of a few foods where the soy bean is identifiable as a bean, albeit after undergoing a process of fermentation. Cooked beans are mixed with the culture bacilluss subtilis natto, and become a sticky mass of bean, smelling a little like a mature cheese. It’s an acquired taste, and even many Japanese won’t go near the stuff. I love it, and when I was in Japan and was asked ‘what’s your favourite food in Japan” (it happened all the time) I took great delight in announcing that it is natto! I was thereafter labelled  ‘henna gaijin”, (strange foreigner) much to my amusement! Henna gaijin or not, natto is a miracle food, so it’s a taste worth acquiring. It’s one of the few vegetable products that contain Vitamin B12, so an important food for vegans; and it is now being considered beneficial for gut health because of its probiotic qualities. It is the enzyme Nattokinase, produced during fermentation, which is thought to have numerous health benefits, including lowering of blood pressure and a reduced risk of heart disease; scientist are also investigating its benefits in respiratory disorders. Natto is sold frozen here in the UK but, if you want experiment with making your own, the bacillus itself can be purchased online.

TOFU Meat of the Fields

Tofu originated in China, where it’s called ‘The Meat of the Fields’ because it’s so rich in protein. Introduced to Japan sometime around the twelfth century, tofu became an essential food item in a country where meat-eating was forbidden by the Buddhism which came with it.

Tofu is the milk of soybeans (made by pressing cooked soy bean mash) to which a co-agulant is added, resulting in a custard-like curd, virtually tasteless but full of protein. Traditionally the coagulant was nigari, or bittern (obtained from seawater) but most commercially produced tofu these days uses calcium sulphate. The left over solids from the mash is a fibrous residue called okara, used in vegetarian cooking and in country-style dishes, as it contains protein, calcium and fibre.

Tofu, like bread in France, is at its best when it’s made and sold daily. In the past, travelling tofu sellers would cycle around local neighbourhoods blowing a small horn to announce their arrival – something I was still able to witness in the seventies. I was also able to film one of the few remaining neighbourhood tofu makers, Saitama-Ya, a husband and wife team who worked in the old university neighbourhood of Tokyo. Their day began at three in the morning, and by seven a.m. creamy soft tofu was ready for the first of the day’s customers, who wanted fresh tofu for the morning’s miso soup. The remainder of the morning was spent pressing and deep-frying any tofu left from the day before – to make ganmodoki – deep fried tofu patties flavoured with vegetables; and other tofu products (see below).

Firm tofu, called momen dofu, or cotton tofu, is good for cooking, and this is the tofu you often find in health food shops in the UK. After the coagulant is added to the milk it separates, and the whey is pressed out leaving the firmer curds behind (like making cheese). It gets its name from the cotton-lined wooden moulds in which it was traditionally made.

Silken tofu (kinugoshi dofu) is the soft tofu which falls apart easily and which you often find in miso soup and in hot pots in Japan; it’s also simply served with soy sauce and condiments, either chilled (hiya yakko) or warmed (yudofu). The proportion of coagulant to milk, and the temperature at which it is made, is crucial if this tofu is to set without separating into curds and whey.

Clearspring, continuing their reputation for high-quality traditionally-made foods, produces a long-life tofu made only with organic soy beans, spring water from Mount Fuji, and nigari, and it is almost as good as fresh tofu, which is hard to find outside of Japan (unless you make it yourself). The texture is smooth and milky, like silken tofu, and is good just at is (or try it in the recipe below).

Yakidofu is grilled firm tofu, also used in cooking.

Usuage are the deep fried tofu pouches, which you often find stuffed with cooked rice. In fact they are thin slices of tofu which have been pressed, then deep fried twice. Atsuage are deep fried thick blocks of tofu, used in dishes such as oden which are simmered for a long time, and therefore need to hold their shape.

Koyadofu is freeze-dried tofu, and this process completely changes its texture. It becomes dry hard cakes which have to be soaked in water before using, after which they are almost sponge-like. This sponge-like texture absorbs flavours readily, so it’s good for dishes which require long simmering in broth. In temple cooking the dry cake is sometimes finely grated and used, like flour, to coat foods before deep-frying.

SHOYU Soy Sauce

Soy sauce can’t be made without soy beans. Normally wheat and salt are added, though a wheat-free type of soy sauce, called tamari, is considered the ‘original’ soy sauce, as tamari was originally the run off from making miso.


The Yaemon family, in Aichi prefecture, have been making wheat-free tamari since 1871, using traditional artisan methods and a recipe that has been handed down through generations. The current head of the family is sixth generation. In Yaemon’s ‘double strength’ tamari, whole organic soy beans are mixed with rice koji and salt to create a mash; Clearspring, who sell it in this country, are very proud to say that it’s the only soy sauce made in all of Japan using ten parts soy beans to five parts water; and this high ratio of beans to water creates an unparalleled depth of flavour and richness.

Soy being mixed in a large barrel for Yaemon Tamari at Clearspring.
Soy being mixed in a large barrel for Yaemon Tamari at Clearspring. Image courtesy of Clearspring.

At Yaemon the mash is stirred and checked daily for anything up to three months: the master brewer will decide when it is ready for the next stage- pressing. When it’s considered ready, the mash is laid between layers of cloth (just like the traditional method of pressing apples for cider), and pressed with stones. It’s hard to believe but Yaemon still use the original pressing stones which have been in use for five hundred years! The resulting liquid shoyu is then aged over two summers in cedarwood barrels. Because tamari is wheat free it’s favoured by those on gluten free diets and, although a small amount of roasted barley is added during the production of Yaemon tamari, the long fermentation eliminates any gluten, making the product safe even for coeliacs. Clearspring’s single strength tamari – 33% soy beans, made by a different company in the Southern area of the Japanese alps, is less intensely flavoured as it’s aged for only nine months, but ideal for everyday use.

Other soy sauces

More commercially produced soy sauce, both here and in Japan, is sold in two basic types – dark (koikuchi) and light (usukuchi).

The darker one is the one you will find most easily in the UK – it’s standard soy sauce, and all-purpose. Usukuchi is favoured in temple and elegant high class cooking (such as that found in the western area of Japan, Kansai) where colour and appearance is important and you don’t want to darken food too much.

Artisan Soy Sauce

If you want to spend a bit more and approach soy sauce like you might a fine wine then you can. Wasabi Company sell a dazzling array of artisan-made soy sauces made by Kamebishi. The Okada family have been producing top notch soy sauces here since 1753, in the same traditional samurai house where they first started.

At Kamebishi, in Kagawa, whole soy beans are steamed and inoculated with mushiro koji. Then, after mixing with roasted organic wheat, they are laid out on straw mats for four days to ferment at 28-30°C. After mixing with seawater, further fermentation and pressing, the resulting soy sauce liquid is left to age in cedarwood barrels that are one hundred years old. It is this aging that gives the soy sauce its astonishing character: Kamebishi soy sauce is aged for a minimum of two years, but it’s also available in three, five, ten and twenty year-aged varieties.  And if you really fancy splashing out (excuse the pun) you can spend over two hundred pounds on a bottle of their thirty eight year-aged shoyu, more than you might pay for a fine wine. And, if you do, you’d probably want to savour its charms it on something very simple and unadorned, like the dish below.

Next time, I’ll be writing more about soy beans and different kinds of miso; as well as introducing a new miso which, unusually, is not made with soy beans but with chick peas.

© Shirley Booth 2022


Chilled tofu with ricotta cheese

This recipe is a variation on hiya yakko, where fresh tofu is eaten chilled with condiments, but in this case it’s combined with ricotta. The original recipe (which I have adapted) is in Harumi’s Japanese Home Cooking, by Harumi Kurihara and, although it may seem strange at first, it really is more than the sum of its parts. I make it all the time and, using top quality ingredients I think it’s inspired. To make it easy, I have suggested using a ready-made ponzu sauce – soy sauce flavoured with yuzu – (which Harumi doesn’t); and again Clearspring and Wasabi Company both sell excellent ponzu sauces, in a range of flavours.

Ingredients: (serves 4)

  • 1 pack of silken tofu (300g)
  • 1 tub of ricotta (250g)
  • 1/2 tablespoon freashly grated ginger
  • 4 tablespoons ponsu sauce
  • a few shredded shiso leaves (or use basil or coriander)
  • 4 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds


  • Drain the tofu of its water, and cut into four. Place a square on each plate.
  • Spoon over the ricotta, dividing equally between the four dishes. Mound a pinch of grate ginger on top of each.
  • Drizzle over the ponsu sauce – one tablespoon per person.
  • Garnish with the shredded shiso leaves and sprnkle over the sesame seeds. Serve immediately.

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