History of Fermented Black Soybeans (165 B.C. to 2011)
William Shurtleff, Akiko AoyagiISBN: 978-1-928914-41-9
Publication Date: 2011 Dec. 11
Number of References in Bibliography: 754
Earliest Reference: 165 B.C.
What are Fermented Black Soybeans?
They are dull-black, somewhat shriveled and soft soybeans that often have tiny salt crystals on them. Most have a hint of ginger flavor. Never eaten alone, they are widely used as a condiment or seasoning in Chinese cooking, especially in “black bean sauce.” They have a strong and complicated flavor.
When and where did they originate? They were found in a tomb that was sealed in about 165 B.C. in south-central China. So they probably existed in China by 200 B.C., making them the oldest known soyfood worldwide.
How are they made? By a two-step fermentation process: In the first step soybeans (usually black soybeans) are cooked, drained, and inoculated with the koji mold (Aspergillus oryzae), then incubated until they are covered with a fragrant mycelium. The soybeans are immersed in salt water with fresh ginger and other herbs or spices – traditionally in a wooden vat. Pressure is applied and the mixture is allowed to age and ripen for about 6 months. Then the soybeans are drained, dried in sunlight, and sold. Note: Those that are not made from black soybeans turn black during the fermentation process.
Where are they made and used today? They are most popular, by far, in southern China, but they are also made and used in Japan, and the Philippines.
The word “natto” in Japanese: This word is used in Japanese refer to two very different foods, which causes considerable confusion: (1) Natto, technically called itohiki natto (“stringy” natto) which is inoculated with bacteria, incubated for 24 hours, and contains no added salt. (2) Hamanatto and Daitokuji natto which are inoculated with a mold, undergo a two-part fermentation that takes 3-6 months, and do contain added salt. In Japan, when people say “natto,” they are almost always referring to the first kind of natto (“stringy natto”) which is vastly more widely made and consumed than the second type. We try to use the word “natto” as little as possible in reference to the second type, calling it “fermented black soybeans” instead.
Brief Chronology of Fermented Black Soybeans
165 B.C. – Fermented black soybeans are found clearly marked in Han Tomb No. 1 at Mawangdui near today’s Changsha, Hunan province, in south-central China. The tomb was sealed in about 165 B.C. and was first opened in 1972. The high-ranking lady to whom the tomb belonged was probably the wife of the first Marquis of Tai.
90 B.C. – In the Shiji (Records of the Historian) by Sima Qian, Chapter 69 refers to 1,000 earthenware vessels of mold-fermented cereal grains and salty fermented soybeans (shi). They were now an important commodity in China. Huang (2000, p. 337) tells this story from the Shiji ((Biography of the Prince of Huainan, Chap. 118): “When the Prince of Huainan (the legendary inventor of tofu), was exiled for inciting rebellion (in 173 BC), against his brother, the Han Emperor Wendi, he and his retinue were, nevertheless, provided with such necessities of life as ‘firewood, rice, salt, shi [fermented black soybeans], and cooking utensils.’" Note that the date 173 BC is before Han Tomb No. 1 at Mawangdui was sealed!
40 B.C. – The Jijiu Pian [Handy Primer or Dictionary for Urgent Use], by Shi You, mentions shi (fermented black soybeans), a clear indication of their great popularity.
76 A.D. – The Qian Hanshu [History of the Former Han Dynasty], by Ban Gu mentions shi. Chapter 61, titled "Record of economic affairs" states that two of the seven wealthiest merchants in the realm had accumulated their fortunes by trading in fermented black soybeans (shi / shih). Such soybeans are also mentioned in books that appeared in China in A.D. 121, 150, 153, 175, 232, 379, 510, 530, and 543.
150 A.D. – The Shiming [Expositor of Names], by Liu Xi first mentions shizhi, fermented black soybean extract (or “shi juice”), a kind of soy sauce with no wheat, resembling Japanese tamari. It is mentioned as an ingredient in a recipe. Shizhi is also mentioned several times in the Qimin Yaoshu (6th century AD). Shizhi can be seen as a precursor of soy sauce.
510 – The Mingyi Bielu [Informal Records of Famous Physicians] by Tao Hongjing, describes the first process for making fermented black soybeans that includes ginger.
544 – The Qimin Yaoshu [Important Arts for the People’s Welfare], by Jia Sixie, gives the earliest known instructions for making fermented black soybeans.
701 – The Taihō Ritsuryō [Taiho Law Codes], by Emperor Monmu, which some regard as Japan’s first constitution, is the earliest document outside of China to mention fermented black soybeans (FBS), which it calls “kuki” or “shi.” These law codes established the Hishio Tsukasa, or Bureau for the Regulation of Hishio Production, Trade and Taxation. The Hishio Tsukasa, located in the Imperial Palace, was an annex of the emperor's kitchen, where hishio was made. Using methods very similar to those developed in China, it transformed soybeans into hishio (which resembled Chinese jiang), fermented black soybeans (kuki or shi), and misho (an ancestor of miso; the term "miso" had not yet been coined). These foods and seasonings were consumed at the Imperial Household (Shurtleff & Aoyagi 1978, p. 219). FBS are again mentioned in Japan in 718, 730, and 923.
741 – Two new Buddhist temples are added to each feudal domain (kuni) in Japan: Kokubunji is for monks and Kokubunniji is for nuns. It is said that from this time, fermented black soybeans (tera nattō, or shiokara nattō) spread throughout Japan. They are made from soybean koji, which is soaked in salted water and dried.
1058-1068 – The word “natto” first appears in Japan, but it refers to “salty natto” (shiokara nattō) (fermented black soybeans) rather than to “sticky soybeans” (itohiki natto). In about 1068 salty natto are first mentioned in Japan in the book Shin Sarugakki, [New Monkey Play Story: A humorous novel…] by Fujiwara no Akihara (lived 989-1066).
1596 – The Bencao Gangmu [The Great Pharmacopoeia], by Li Shizen contains a detailed description of how to make dadou shi (fermented black soybeans).
1605 –Tokugawa Ieyasu in Japan commands the monks at Daifukuji temple to make Hamana Natto –a type of fermented black soybeans, later known as Hamanatto (Saito 1985, p. 14-16)
1815-1823 – Fermented black soybeans are first mentioned in the Western world in A Dictionary of The Chinese Language in Three Parts, by Robert Morrison, published in Macao. They are called “she” or “tow she.”
1842-1843 – Fermented black soybeans are first mentioned in English in Chinese and English Dictionary: Containing all the Words in the Chinese Imperial Dictionary, Arranged According to the radicals. 2 vols., by Walter Henry Medhurst, a missionary. They are called “Shé.”
1855 – Fermented black soybeans are first mentioned in French, by Stanislas Julien in the Bulletin de la Societe d’Acclimatation. They are called chi.
1856 – Fermented black soybeans are first referred to as “salted beans,” “salted beans and ginger,” or “tau shí” in English in A Tonic Dictionary of the Chinese Language in the Canton Dialect, by Samuel Wells Williams.
1884 July 13 – The term “salted black beans” is first used to refer to fermented black soybeans, by the Washington Post. However the article was copied from Wong Ching Too in the Brooklyn Eagle.
1899 – The term “pickled and salted beans” is first used to refer to fermented black soybeans, by Carstairs Douglas.
1900 – Fermented black soybeans are first mentioned in Dutch, by P.A. Boorsma, who is writing about the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia). They are called Tao-dji. However they gradually disappear from Indonesia.
1901 Nov. 3 – Fermented black soybeans are first mentioned in the New York Times, in an article titled “How to make chop suey.” They are used to make commercial “See Yu sauce.”
1902 – The term “Hamananatto” is first used in English to refer to Japanese fermented black soybeans, by Sawa of Japan.
1911 – Chinese Materia Medica, by Rev. George A. Stuart, under “Vegetable kingdom: Bean relish (To-tou-shih)” contains a good, early description of fermented black soybeans, published in Shanghai.
1914 Jan. 2 – Fermented black soybeans are first mentioned in German, by Clemens Grimme. They are called Tao-tche, but are confused with Japanese natto.
1914 – The term “hamanatto” is first used to refer to Japanese fermented black soybeans, by U.S. Dept. of Treasury. These soybeans, which are now being imported into San Francisco, are classified as “prepared beans” and therefore subject to an import duty.
1923 – In their classic The Soybean, Piper and Morse give a detailed description of Hamanatto (p. 245).
1929 – During a trip to Japan (funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture), William Morse observes and photographs “Hama Natto.” In his log of trip he writes: The beans are soft and of a flavor like dill pickles. The beans are eaten as a relish.” While in Kyoto he wrote: "We then went to a Natto manufacturing place near an old temple known as Daitokuji. Here we tried out a kind of natto [Daitokuji natto = fermented
black soybeans] which we think might take with the American people,…”
1935 – The term “Black salted soy beans” is first used to refer to fermented black soybeans, by Mary Li Sia (Chinese Chopsticks: A Manual of Chinese Cookery…).
1936 – The term “Dow see” is first used to refer to fermented black soybeans, by Cheng in Shanghai Restaurant Chinese Cookery Book.
1939 Feb. 19 – The term “black bean sauce” is first used in connection with fermented black soybeans, by Loeb (New York Times).
1939 – The term “tao-si” is first used to refer to fermented black soybeans in the Philippines (Handbook of Philippine Agriculture).
1948 Dec.. 31 – The term “Chinese black beans” is first used to refer to fermented black soybeans, by Wood (Chicago Daily Tribune).
1949 March – Allan K. Smith writes an important article in Soybean Digest titled “Oriental use of soybeans as food,” based on a research trip he made for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to China, Japan, and Korea to study such foods. In this article (p. 32) he gives the first detailed description in English of how to make “Fermented soybeans” [Chinese-style] from small black soybeans.
1950 – The term “black fermented beans” is first used to refer to fermented black soybeans, by Feng in The Joy of Chinese Cooking.
1956 – The terms “spiced black beans” and “salted spiced black beans” are first used to refer to fermented black soybeans by Morrison Wood.
1957 – The term “black bean and garlic sauce” is first used to refer to fermented black soybeans, by Robert W. Marks.
1960 – The term “fermented black beans” is first used to refer to fermented black soybeans, by Mimie Ouei in The Art of Chinese Cooking.
1962 – Shih Shêng-han translates the Qimin Yaoshu into English (as A Preliminary Survey of the Book Ch’i Min Yao Shu: An Agricultural Encyclopedia of the 6th Century). It gives the earliest known instructions for the preparation of fermented black soybeans (shih).
1962 – The term “pickled black beans” is first used to refer to fermented black soybeans, by Lin Yutang.
1965 – The term “Daitokuji natto” is first used in English to refer to fermented black soybeans made at Daitokuji temple in Kyoto, Japan, by William Brandemuhl.
1968 July 1 – The Immigration and Nationality Act. of 1965 (Hart-Cellar Act) becomes law. It now became much easier for people from East Asia to enter the United States – to the great benefit of the USA.
1978 June 8 – The term “douchi” is first used in English to refer to fermented black soybeans, by Wm. Shurtleff.
1972 – Han Tomb No. 1 at Mawangdui near Changsha, Hunan province, China is discovered and opened. Intact fermented black soybeans (with ginger), more than 2,000 years old, are found in pottery jars, neatly listed on bamboo strips.
1972 – The Chinese Cookbook, by Craig Claiborne (New York Times) and Virginia Lee states (p. 35): “Fermented, salted black beans have an almost winy flavor, and they give an intriguing flavor to almost any dish in which they are cooked.” In Chapter 11, “Chinese ingredients,” it adds: "An ingredient of Cantonese cooking but virtually unknown elsewhere in China, these black beans…”
1975 March – A Japanese-language article titled “Studies in Hama-Natto…” by Masayo Kon states: Hamanatto, a salty fermented soybean product, is made only in the district around Lake Hamana in Shizuoka prefecture. There are two methods of making Hamanatto: (1) Using artificial inoculation with molds, the method used at Yamaya and Horinji, and (2) Using natural inoculation, the method used at Daifukuji.
1976 March – Hiroshi Ito writes another excellent article titled “Hamanatto.” It is the earliest document seen that mentions "Ikkyuji" or "Ichimei Ikkyuji" in conjunction with Daitokuji natto.
1977 – In a book chapter titled “Han China,” Yü Ying-shih gives a detailed description of the discoveries in Han Tomb No. 1 at Mawangdui. It is in the outstanding book Food in Chinese Culture, edited by K.C. Chang (1977, Yale University Press).
1977-1978 – Alfred Birnbaum and William Shurtleff in Japan visit all known makers of Hamanatto (including Hōrinji / Horinji) and Daitokuji natto; they observe and describe the process used by each manufacturer in detail and take numerous color photos.
1980 Aug. 24 – The term “salty black beans” is first used to refer to fermented black soybeans, by Florence Fabricant (New York Times).
1981 March – The term “soy nuggets” is first used in a publication to refer to fermented black soybeans, by Wm. Shurtleff in The Book of Miso (Revised ed.).
1982 – The terms “Chinese salted black beans” and ginger black beans” are first used to refer to fermented black soybeans, by Barbara Tropp (The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking).
1983 – The term “fermented black soybeans” is first used to refer to fermented black soybeans, in Chinese Cuisine from the Master Chefs of China.
2000 – Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China. Vol. 6, Biology and Biological Technology. Part V: Fermentations and Food Science, by H.T. Huang contains the best early history to date of “Fermented soybeans, Shih” (fermented black soybeans) (p. 336-42).
Alphabetical list of names of fermented black soybeans (useful for searching digital / electronic text):
Beans, black salted fermented
Black bean and garlic sauce
Black bean and ginger sauce
Black bean sauce
Black beans, fermented
Black beans, salted
Black fermented beans
Black salted soybeans
Black soybeans, fermented
Black soybeans, salted
Chinese black beans
Chinese fermented black beans
Chinese preserved black beans
Chinese salted spiced black beans
Daitokuji natto or Daitokuji nattō
Daitokuji soy nuggets
Dou-chi or dou chi
Dow see (Cantonese)
Fermented black beans
Fermented black soybeans
Fermented salted black beans
Fermented and salted soybean
Ginger black beans
Ginger black bean sauce
Hama-natto or Hama natto
Hamananattō or Hamana-nattō
Kara-natto or kara-nattō
Pickled and salted beans
Pickled black beans
Preserved and cured Chinese black beans
Preserved black beans
Preserved Chinese black beans
Salted and fermented black beans
Salted bean relish
Salted beans and ginger
Salted black beans
Salted black beans, spiced
Salted spiced black beans
Salty black beans
Savory soy nuggets
Shi or shi or shí
Spiced black beans
Tao-si or Tao si
Tau-si or Tau si
Tou-see or tou see
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History of douchi
History of doushi
History of preserved soybeans
History of dow see
History of tausi
History of Daitokuji natto
Bibliography of fermented black soybeans
Bibliography of fermented black beans
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