What is miso?
What is it that makes Japanese broths such as those you find in your typical ramen bowl so special? The secret ingredient for many Japanese broths is none other than miso.
Miso paste is an ingredient in Japanese cooking which usually is used as a base for the staple dish of miso soup. The actual paste has a texture similar to peanut butter and is made from a cultured mixture of soybeans, a grain like rice or barley, some salt, and a type of mold called koji.
Health benefits of miso
Miso is a fermented food, and as such, it is a natural source of healthy probiotics that are beneficial for good digestion. In order to keep this health benefit, most traditional recipes opt not to boil the actual soup so as to not kill this good bacteria! Be warned however that miso has a high sodium content, although this would vary depending on the variety and brand.
The different kinds of miso
Depending on the kind of miso used, it can be either smooth or chunky and can be fermented anywhere between a few weeks and several years. There are over 1,000 types of miso which all vary in texture, flavor, and color!
Some miso is lighter in color and sweeter in flavor due to shorter fermentation time. Meanwhile, some are darker in color and are fermented for a longer time to produce a stronger, funkier, and saltier flavor with a higher proportion of soybeans and salt for a truly intense flavor experience.
It sounds strange, but this fermentation is actually what brings out miso paste’s strong “umami” or savory flavor. With miso paste, it is a general rule that the longer it is fermented, the richer its flavor gets.
To this day, such an unusual ingredient remains essential in Japanese cooking, with its taste becoming enjoyed across the world. If you’re a Japanese food lover, then you’re sure to encounter at least one dish which uses miso in its ingredients.
What does miso taste like anyway?
Perhaps with all the varieties of miso, it’s hard to pin down what its exact taste is. But generally, miso is known to have a salty, tangy, and savory type of flavor as is. The lighter types of miso are sweeter and smooth — similar to less oily peanut butter. Some are more chunky in texture.
In general, however, people do not enjoy miso as a standalone food. Its main purpose is precisely to complement and intensify other Japanese dishes, bringing with it the unique “umami” fifth flavor touch.
How to use miso paste?
Miso can be mixed into sauces, dressings, batters, and soups. It can be eaten either cooked or raw. As a cultured food, miso works well as a finishing touch to dishes that were cooked for a long time. When using miso in soup however, one ought to watch out for boiling it as the heat can kill the active bacteria inside the soup, reducing its otherwise splendid health benefits.
What is ichiju-issai?
For many Japanese, the combination of miso soup with a bowl of rice is an essential meal to their diets. Such a combination is known as “ichiju-issai” and includes a bowl of rice, a bowl of soup, one side dish, and some pickled vegetables known as tsukemono.
The usual ingredients in a bowl of typical miso soup are the following: tofu, wakame seaweed, Japanese radishes, potatoes, and the miso paste itself. These ingredients however tend to vary per region, and sometimes even from family to family. Whatever combination of ingredients they use, it’s clear that Japanese miso soup is a necessity for daily Japanese life.
In addition to those aforementioned ingredients, however, miso soup also contains a type of soup stock called “dashi” which is prepared separately from the actual miso paste itself. For many, this is one of the keys to creating a truly stellar miso soup. The perfect miso soup for many is one that toes a fine balance between the dashi soup, the miso paste, and all the other ingredients to create a truly savory flavor!
History of miso soup
Perhaps unsurprisingly, miso soup itself has had a long history that spans centuries.
Before miso soup grew in popularity, a food made of soybeans and salt called “hishio” was introduced by the Chinese during the Asuka period which lasted roughly around the years of 592 until 710. From this “hishio” dish, the Japanese had the ingenious idea to turn this into a paste form. This is where the miso paste as we know it today originated.
At first, miso paste was not used in miso soup. Before the Heian period from 794 to 1185, it was more typical for it to be eaten like a popsicle! Can you believe that?
The ichiju-issai style of food preparation as we know it today first became common with samurai during the Kamakura period from 1185 to 1333. From here on forth, the custom of serving miso soup with everyday meals was born.
During the civil wars in Japan however, miso soup eventually became adopted as a field ration by military commanders. This is where the modern miso mix as we know it originated. It came from something called “imogara-nawa” which was prepared by simmering the stem of taro with miso and letting it dry out.
The actual miso soup would be made by taking this chopped “imogara-nawa” and placing it in hot water when they ran out of food or simply wanted to enjoy some good old miso soup.
In your usual stores, miso as we know it comes in its paste form. Some Asian stores in the West will market it instead as “soybean paste,” but don’t worry, this is the famed miso of Japanese origin despite its unorthodox name.
Miso usually comes in plastic tubs or jars in Asian grocery stores or the refrigerator sections of local healthy food stores. Large grocery stores on the other hand tend to store miso stock in plastic tubs near refrigerated tofu.
In general, however, it is best to look for miso with short ingredient lists that are free from stabilizers and preservatives. Depending on your recipe, simply choose whichever variety you feel ranging from the light type to the dark type.
Storing miso at home
When you’ve bought it, you’ll be pleased to know that it is not actually difficult to store! This is because miso is a fermented food, which tends to store very well. It is best to store it in a tightly sealed container in a refrigerator, and one can keep it for up to a year or longer and still be able to use it for dishes!
However, do note that light miso, due to its lesser time spent in fermentation, tends to have a shorter shelf life. Also, make sure to place a plastic wrap directly against miso paste after each use to prevent discoloration due to oxidation.
If you’re looking to give your meals a strong Japanese touch, miso is an absolutely essential ingredient for your dishes. Whether you’re cooking traditional Japanese cuisine or something of a fusion of Western food and Japanese food, make sure to include miso in either of its soup or paste forms to ensure a truly authentic “umami” savory experience! You won’t regret it.