Li Yu-Ying - 1881-1973
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The History of Soy Pioneers Around the World, Unpublished Manuscript

by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi

©Copyright 2004 Soyfoods Center, Lafayette, California

One of the most remarkable and creative figures in the early history of soyfoods in Europe was a Chinese gentleman named Li Yu-ying. We know relatively little about his life, but quite a bit about his work with soyfoods thanks to his own extensive writings (articles, books, and patents) and additional information supplied in Dr. A.A. Horvath's excellent booklet The Soybean as Human Food (1927), published in China. In discussing Li's work, it is well to remember that France was the first country in the Western world to take a serious interest in soybeans and soyfoods--not Germany as is often incorrectly supposed. Le Soya by Paillieux (1880) demonstrates this point clearly (see Chapter 55). The interest in all aspects of soy in Paris in the early 1900s set the stage upon which Li made his many bold contributions. He was the first person from East Asia to think about soyfoods like a Westerner, to grasp the great potential for soyfoods in the West, to develop, make, and market a full line of original Western style soyfoods, to introduce and popularize commercial tofu and soymilk, to write a major book featuring soyfoods, and to play a key international role in the transmission of soyfoods from East to West.

Early Life and Work. We know very little about Li Yu-ying's date or place of birth. One clue is the following statement he made in Le Soya in 1911: "One of our parents has been nourished from the first year with soymilk. He is now 37 years old and has always been in excellent health." This would imply that Li's wife was no older than 21, which would probably put him in his mid-20s or early 30s. In various patent applications he stated that he was then a "subject of the Emperor of China" residing in France. Thus we can surmise that he was born between 1875 and 1885 in China, probably Beijing.

Our first solid knowledge of Li comes from the year 1905, when he presented a paper on the subject of soymilk at the Second International Dairy Congress in Paris; it was later published in the proceedings (Compte Rendus du Congress International de Laiterie cit??). Here he discussed the virtues and history of soymilk, and urged its introduction to the West, stating that it would be "highly beneficial to public health as well as to the budget of the poor." At about this same time, Li was working at the laboratory of the School of Practical Agriculture (Ecole Pratique d'Agriculture) at Chesnoy (Demolon 1910).

In 1908, to further his work with soymilk, Li established a laboratory for soymilk studies in Paris. It was probably named Society Francaise pour l'Exploitation du Soja et de ses Derives, located at 46-48 Rue Denis-Papin, Les Valees, Colombes, which is northwest of Paris (Horvath 1927). In 1981 people in the neighborhood remembered Li's plant; the buildings were torn down in about 1960.

Early Soyfoods Patents. In December 1910, Li applied for five British patents relating to soyfoods production; all were granted by 1912. "Soybean Preparations" (number 11,789) called for soybeans to be dehulled, cooked, ground to a smooth paste, and mixed with sugar. Dried fruits, chestnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, cocoa, etc. could be added to make a substance resembling chestnut butter for making pastry or confectionery. The mixture could also be dried to make a powder. "Mill for Wet Grinding Soybeans" (number 11,903 cit??) gave the construction details of such a mill used to make tofu and soymilk. "Vegetable Milk and its Derivatives" (number 30,275) described the production of soymilk using a cold extraction process, pressurized filter press, and bottling apparatus. The soymilk could then be made into "fresh cheese" (tofu) coagulated by "salts of magnesia, organic acids and ferments; cheese rennet, lactic ferments or ferments to which the inventor has given the name `sojabacille.'" This was the first use of either rennet or lactic acid cultures to ferment soymilk or make a soymilk-based cheese. Li also noted that "For fermented cheese such as roquefort, parmezan, romatour, camembert and gruyere, suitable ferments are employed." The soymilk could also be concentrated or powdered, or fermented with "sojabacille" to make "kephir, yoghourt, koumiss, and the like." Finally Li described isolating a protein (which he called casein) from the soymilk to be used either in food products or to make a rock-hard substance which he called "sojalithe." This was one of the earliest descriptions of soy protein isolate. In this patent, Li also gave a detailed cross-sectional illustration of his innovative soymilk production system: stone mill, slurry tank, pump, filter press, and steam jacketed cooker. He stated that the filter press residues (okara) could be dried and ground to form a food for human beings, or used for cattle fodder or fertilizer, and that the liquid expressed in making the cheese (whey) could be used for feeding animals. Li's fourth patent, "Soy Bean Flour" (number 30,350), was one of the earliest known patents for soy flour, and one of the first times this term had been mentioned. The flour was mechanically extracted low-fat flour recommended for use in pastas, soups, breads, and cakes. It is interesting to note that soy flour had never been developed previously in China. How ironic that a Chinese living in Paris would be the first "Westerner" to develop it. Li's last patent, "Sauces" (number 30,351), described the production of fermented soy sauces or soymilk sauces.

In October 1911 Li applied for a United States patent for a "Method of Manufacturing Products from Soja"; it was similar to his French patent titled "Vegetable Milk and its Derivatives" (No. 30,275). He was granted this US patent 1,064,841 on 17 June 1913. The fact that a Chinese living in France would bother to apply for a patent in the US at a time when soyfoods and soybeans were still virtually unknown, shows the strength of his belief in the potential of soyfoods in America and the international scope of his thinking.

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