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NGB's Garden Articles offers tips, techniques, and information for home gardeners growing annual flowers and vegetables. Any or all of this information may be reprinted, with credit given to National Garden Bureau.
This ancient Asian vegetable is rapidly growing in popularity in America. In Japan, the pods are popped open and eaten out of hand as we would eat peanuts out of the shell. The perfect accompaniment to a frosty glass of beer.
Originally published in 2004
This ancient Asian vegetable is rapidly growing in popularity in America. In Japan, the pods are popped open and eaten out of hand as we would eat peanuts out of the shell—the perfect accompaniment to a frosty glass of beer. Edamame translates as "beans on branches," for its growing habit—producing bunches of beans on well-branched shrubby plants. Unlike regular soybeans which dry on the plant, edamame pods are picked green—before they ripen. Each green pod contains two or three delicious seeds (beans) with a sweet, nutty flavor that appeals to children and adults.
Edamame (Glycine max) is a specialty soybean; records indicate its use in China (known there as mao dou) more than 2200 years ago. From China, it was introduced into Japan, where it was consumed for centuries before it was documented in the 927 A.D. Engishiki. This guide about trade in agricultural commodities depicts the fresh soy bean pods as offerings in Buddhist temples. A seasonal crop, its peak harvest coincided with the full moons of September and October. Originally grown in the berms between rice paddies, edamame is now field-cultivated.
David Fairchild, noted horticulturist and plant explorer with the Department of Agriculture, introduced edamame to the U.S. in 1902 after delighting in its flavor and texture while traveling in Japan. He grew it and served it to prominent guests in Washington D.C. Although edamame did not catch on as a snack food as quickly as he had hoped, research has been going on for 75 years, flourishing in the 1930s and 1940s due to a protein shortage. Interest spiked again in the 1970s concurrent with the growing interest in organic agriculture. The focus of the Rodale Research Center was on edamame quality and adaptability, while Cornell University conducted basic agronomic research.
Edamame Common Names
In the plant world, its common names abound; the most common is vegetable soybean. Other appellations include edible soybean, fresh green soybean, garden soybean, green soybean, green-mature soybean, green vegetable soybean, immature soybean, large-seeded soybean, vegetable-type soybean, and beer bean. In culinary circles, nomenclature is much simpler: just call it edamame.
Tasty and Good for You Too
Edamame is a nutritional powerhouse. Like dried soybeans, it is high in phytoestrogens, a natural plant estrogen. A 100 gram serving (3 ounces or about 35 pods) of the beans only, (not the pods), has 125 hardworking calories packed with 12 grams of protein, 13 grams of carbohydrate, and only 3.5 grams of fat. It is rich in calcium and phosphorus and is a good source of vitamin A.
Sow It and It Will Grow
Edamame is divided into two classifications: day length sensitive and insensitive. The best way to determine the adaptability of a variety is to grow it. Select the variety based on days to maturity and the flavor. Early varieties will mature in about 65 days.
Edamame is easy to grow, similar to growing bush beans. Like other legumes, edamame seeds benefit from an inoculant, which enables the roots to fix nitrogen from the air, making this valuable nutrient available to the plant. Be sure that the inoculant is specific for soybeans. Some seeds are already coated with inoculant—check with the seed company to be sure.
Grow edamame in full sun. Plants are adaptable to most soil types. In spring, once the soil has warmed to 65 degrees, sow the seeds 3 inches apart and 1 inch deep, spacing rows about 24 inches apart. The seeds easily rot if overwatered. Since all the pods on a plant are ready to pick at once, make successive sowings—every week or two—to ensure fresh edamame all summer long. When the plants reach a height of 4 to 6 inches high, add a 3-inch layer of organic mulch (hay, leaf mold, salt hay, grass clippings) around each plant; keep the mulch at least 1 inch from the stem. Water thoroughly during dry periods. Foliar feed or fertilize when the plants begin flowering. In general, the plants grow about two feet tall—just the right size for children to help with the harvest.
Pick It Right
Pod color, which is affected by the amount of sun that reaches the pods, is the best way to judge edamame. The darker the color of the pods, the better the flavor of the seeds. The beans are more flavorful if harvested in the evening, rather than in the morning. For peak flavor and nutritive value, harvest edamame when the pod is 80% to 90% filled out. Studies have shown that by the time the pod has matured, flavor and nutrients have started to decline. Refrigerate, freeze, cook, or blanch the pods as soon as possible after picking to maintain flavor and nutrients.
Edamame is best—from both a flavor and nutrition standpoint—if eaten soon after picking. Edamame is a delicious, healthy snack. Because it is something you can eat with your fingers and its flavor has a light sweetness blended with a nutty taste, edamame appeals to children and adults alike. Boil the freshly picked pods for about ten minutes in salted water. Drain the pods and serve them heaped in an attractive bowl. They are equally delectable as finger food whether served slightly warm from cooking, at room temperature, or lightly chilled. Hold the pod and gently push the beans out of the pod, pop them into your mouth, and enjoy their sweet, nutty flavor.
If the harvest is greater than the immediate need, blanch and freeze the beans: Put them in boiling salted water for 1 minute. Pressed for time? Plunge entire stems in the pot. Drain the pods and immediately immerse them in ice water to stop the cooking process. Once chilled, drain on a paper towel and freeze serving-size portions in heavy-duty, "zippered"plastic bags. When anyone has a yen for edamame, plunge the entire bag in a large pot of boiling water for about fifteen minutes (if frozen), four to six minutes if defrosted. Some gardening cooks prefer to freeze the pods directly after picking, without blanching. However, blanching inhibits the enzyme action that would otherwise overripen the beans.
In addition to being a great snack, shelled edamame beans are delicious served solo as a vegetable, mixed in with other vegetables, stir fried, added to soups, and combined with other beans in chili. In Japan, ground beans are blended with miso to make a thick broth called gojiru.
The following chart lists edamame varieties, a brief description, the source of seed for home gardeners and website. You may link directly to seed companies marked with an * from the Bureau website www.ngb.org and clicking on "Member Directory."
We credit Cathy Wilkinson Barash the author of this article.