Banana soymilk? Melon soymilk? In the Japanese supermarkets, the rainbow colors that greet your eye in the soymilk aisle is incredible. This is great news to some people!
Who could it be rejoicing about soymilk? Well, for dairy-free people (people with milk allergies or lactose intolerance*) many tempting Japanese treats are off the menu: moist cheesecake, choux cream puffs, milk tea (café au lait), soft serve ice cream, cream-topped strawberry cake (that's zannen, disappointing). However, Japan is full of alternatives!
Daizu, or soybeans, are the ingredient for staples such as tofu, yuba (tofu skin), miso soup, miso dipping sauce, soy sauce, and kinako (soybean powder, often mixed with sugar and sprinkled on rice cake). The beans can also be eaten cooked and whole as a side.
So back to soymilk.
There are two leading brands. One is Kikkoman (the soy sauce company), and the other is Pokka Sapporo. You can buy a small 200 mL box, a half size 500 mL carton, or the biggest 1L carton. There is much more variety in the 200 mL boxes than the larger ones, but they're a little expensive in the long run. One small box at Ito Yokado Supermarket costs ¥72, while a large box costs ¥198. Among the large sizes, you can choose between soymilk tea, additive free 無調整 (tan colored box), and 調整 additive included (green box).
Additive free soymilkHere are a few of my favorites.
1. Kinako soymilk
Kinako soymilk (double soybeans!) really tastes like kinako powder. It's lightly sweet and is nice to drink straight from the box or with granola (it's expensive in Japan, but you can find a medium-sized bag for less than 500 yen at Maruetsu grocery store).
Photo: Toby Oxborrow on Flickr
2. Banana Soymilk
Banana soymilk is very sweet and has a strong banana flavor, a little like banana pudding in the US. I recommend eating it with plain oatmeal!
3. Coffee soymilk
Coffee soymilk: It's still not common to find coffee shops that offer alternative milks, so this was a treat! It was lightly sweetened, creamy, and didn't taste bean-y at all.
I haven't yet tried cocoa soymilk, but please give it a go! Tea soymilk to me seems a little expensive, when you can buy a 1L box of plain soymilk and add it to multiple cups of tea at home–but if you are on the go, a 72 yen per box is cheaper than a milk tea in most vending machines. If you take a look online, there are even more varieties, from cherry blossom to sweet potato! Check out the links below.
Melon flavored soymilk
Green tea flavored soymilkA word of warning to those with milk allergies. These days, even tofu restaurants use milk as a binding agent in some of their dishes, and creamy wagashi (Japanese-style sweets) can contain milk to heighten the creamy texture.
Tip 1: If you're unsure, it's best to tell the waiter sumimasen, gyunyu ni arerugi ga arimasu (Excuse me, I have a milk allergy). Japanese are very obliging, and with prior notice you can usually enjoy a dairy-free alternative.
Tip 2: Check labels.
Soymilk health labelsLearn to recognize 牛乳 (cow's milk). If you see 乳化剤 (nyu-ka-zai) your food contains an "emulsifier" but not necessarily cow's milk.
Otherwise, big beans 大豆 are your big friends, and Japan is the land of soybeans, so try and discover what all it has to offer!
*In general, a milk allergy is more serious than lactose intolerance. While people with a milk allergy who consume dairy may experience hives or difficulty breathing, those with lactose intolerance experience gastrointestinal discomfort.