An Asian staple for centuries, the legacy of soy is undisputable. I’m grateful that Malaysians have such easy access to freshly made soy products like tempeh and tofu. While I haven’t gotten round to learning how to make either of those, its milky manifestation has left me feeling proud that I accomplished at least *something* during quarantine.
I learned how to make soymilk to stay as self-sufficient as possible during the height of Covid-19 lockdown, when grocery runs felt like full-blown expeditions. If learning a new skill could mean one less venture out of the apartment to brave far-stretching queues and empty shelves at the supermarket, I was all for it. Thankfully this skill is now something I intend to put into practice for a long time yet.
If making your own soymilk feels like an arduous task, I have to be honest: It is. However, once you get the hang of it, like any kind of new activity you incorporate into your life, it becomes less intimidating and more of something you just ‘do’. And, like anything freshly brewed at home, there’s a quality to soymilk that can’t be captured in a carton or bottle bought elsewhere.
Removing the skins after soaking is an optional step. Some say that removing the skins make the milk taste less ‘bean-y’. I honestly cannot tell that much of a difference. Most of the time, I remove the skins because I find it therapeutic. The ease of skin removal also depends on the source of your beans. The ones I get from China have hardy skins that slip off easily. Other times, I have used Australian soybeans. I find those skins thin and stubborn, so I’ve just kept them on. If possible, find a bowl or container large enough to fit both your hands into comfortably to do the work. You don’t need to be thorough with skin removal. Getting most of them out is good enough. Do look for organic, non-GMO soybeans.
After blending, you will find a thick layer of foam on top of your milk. I’m not sure what this is, but I suspect it is anti-nutrients that may interfere with digestion. You don’t need this foam anyway. Skim off with a ladle and discard.
If you haven’t used a cheesecloth to make plant-based milk before, this part is fun for the kids! You’re basically removing the soy pulp from the milk. Get them to flex their muscles and squeeze as hard as they can.
The recipe for soymilk is actually a 3-in-1: you also get Okara!
This is the pulp that remains after you are done ‘milking’ your beans with a cheesecloth. Okara is a traditional health food in some parts of East Asia, high in fibre, calcium, iron, phosphorous, copper and manganese, and a fair amount of high quality protein. There are plenty of online resources that show you how to incorporate okara into all sorts of food, from cakes to burger patties. It doesn’t last longer than a few days in the fridge, so use prompty. Or, do what I do and bake them until dry before storing. I crumble it up and set my oven at 180 degrees celsius for 20 minutes. It may take longer if the okara is more wet. So the harder you milk those beans, the drier your fresh pulp will be.
Cooking soymilk is the part that needs patience and care. What I’ve learned about making great soymilk is two things.
One is that the heat needs to be extremely gentle… just enough for steam to emit from the milk, but not high enough for the milk to bubble like a witch’s brew. Play around with your own cooking appliance to see what your settings need to be to strike this balance.
Two is that the milk needs to be constantly stirred, especially at the point where it starts emitting steam. Every time I have tried to hasten the process with higher heat, or have felt lazy and figured that the milk will be fine without stirring, I have always ended up with chunky, chalky milk that separates. Such milk is not inedible, but who loves chunky, chalky milk? So give it the attention it deserves, and the payoff will be great.
One of my favourite things to do is to add an umami tone to my milk with the addition of kombu (kelp). I buy mine by weight and zero waste from The Hive. It is also available at the supermarket aisle that offers dry Chinese-style soup ingredients like Chinese herbs, dates and dehydrated shiitake mushrooms. It’s worth also checking out the Japanese / Korean food or organic dry ingredient aisles.
I normally cook my milk until the skin at the ends of the kombu sheet peel back. Cooking for longer times amplifies the umami effect. It also serves the purpose of thickening your milk in a natural way, as teensy, translucent gelatinous bits of the seaweed soften, break off and stay in suspension or sink to the bottom of your milk. I strain my umami milk before bottling to catch any bits of kombu left behind. And whenever I get seaweed sediment, I shake the milk before every use. If you prefer just a hint of umami, you can remove the piece of seaweed halfway through the cooking process, which would also save you from sediment. Once you’re done with the kombu, you can cut into small pieces, store in the fridge or freezer, then add to soup.
If you don’t have access to kombu, adding 1/4 teaspoon of sea salt is also lovely. If you like your milk on the sweet side, you can add a sweetener of your choice, say Gula Melaka or agave nectar, once it is done cooking. You can also make soymilk without adding anything at all.
Remember I said that making soymilk is a 3-in-1 recipe? As you let the milk cool down, you may find a thin skin forming on the surface of the milk. This is where yuba (tofu skin) comes from! Remove this slowly with a spoon, allow it to fall folded into a small saucer, and you can keep it in the fridge to fry or add to soup. It’s such a small piece of yuba though, so I normally just eat it on the spot. It’s so smooth and silky!
Your freshly bottled homemade soymilk will stay good in the fridge for up to 3 days. Sometimes I stretch it to 4 days and the taste starts to get a little bean-y, but it’s still edible. Once it starts to curdle and taste sour, discard.
I can understand if this recipe frightens you. So many by-products, so many steps! But let me share something if that’s alright with you.
During lockdown last year, I saw a video of a grandmotherly woman in a small village in China, making tofu the old fashioned way. No fancy equipment, just rustic heavy tools made of metal, wood and stone. It looked like it took FOREVER. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was days. But the ending shot was of cool ol’ grandma serving a plate of the tofu she made with her own two strong, wrinkly hands. A basic dish sprinkled with chilli oil and spring onion. She and her partner picking up a piece each with chopsticks, eating it at the same time, chewing slowly and gazing into each other’s eyes in joy and gratitude. I have saved that video and watch it from time to time. And each time, it makes me cry.
Self sustenance can be a beautiful thing indeed.
If you can find even just a tiny fragment of that kind of joy and gratitude in this recipe too, then my purpose on this earth has been fulfilled.
A kitchen project that essentially needs one main ingredient and a lot of labour, a glass of soymilk made from scratch is an ode to Asian traditions and simpler times.
- 1.2 litres drinking water for cooking (6 cups)
- 1/2 cup soybeans
- 1 slice kombu (kelp)- approx. 1x4 inches OR 1/4 tsp sea salt (Optional)
- Step 1 Soak soybeans overnight in a container of water (8-12 hours). If you go past 12 hours, the water may turn cloudy and foam may form on top of the water. This does not affect the soybeans.
- Step 2 Drain water from soybeans, transfer beans to a large bowl – enough to fit both your hands in – and fill up bowl with fresh water. Should you choose to not skin your beans, you can move straight to Step 4.
- Step 3 Massage beans between your palms to loosen and remove skins from beans. From time to time, stir around the water to make the skins float to the surface, discard skins along with water, then refill with fresh water to continue skin removal. Repeat this until most skins are removed.
- Step 4 Transfer beans to a blender together with drinking water.
- Step 5 Blend for approx. 1 minute until the beans are finely blended.
- Step 6 A thick layer of foam will appear on top of the milk. Skim off with a ladle and discard.
- Step 7 Take a large mixing bowl and line it with a large piece of cheesecloth, preferably folded once to create a 2-layer filter. Ensure that your cloth is large enough for the corners to go past the brim of the bowl.
- Step 8 Pour soymilk over the cloth and into the bowl.
- Step 9 Gather up corners of cheesecloth. Now it’s time to ‘milk’ your soybeans! Squeeze as much liquid from the soy pulp as you can.
- Step 10 Transfer soy pulp to a container and store in the fridge to use in other recipes, or bake in the oven (20 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius) so it can keep for longer. Alternatively, okara is great in compost!
- Step 11 Transfer milk and optional kombu/salt to a cooking pot and cook very gently on low heat for 10 minutes. Observe closely when steam starts to emerge from the pot.
- Step 12 Once this happens, stir the milk at every minute, for the total cooking time of 25-30 minutes.
- Step 13 Turn off heat, remove kombu from milk and allow milk to cool for 1-2 hours.
- Step 14 If a skin forms on top of the milk, remove carefully and consume immediately or store in the fridge to use in another recipe.
- Step 15 Transfer milk to a glass bottle, using a mesh strainer if necessary to catch stray bits of kombu.
- Step 16 Ready to drink immediately, or keep refrigerated for up to 3 days.