See also: Miso Trivia - Soybean Trivia
Japanese have been making and using miso for over 1 thousand years; they believe firmly in its therapeutic and gastronomic values.
Sometimes called “wine of the Orient”, miso is a fermented liquid that takes as much care and patience to do as the finest beers and wines in the world. It is an art and science, which few can master.
Miso is a slow fermented soybean paste that is indispensable to Japanese cuisine. The exotic savoury, salty, malty, rich flavour, characteristic of traditional Japanese dishes owe their gusto to miso.
In Japan, people start their day with miso. The rich brown taste contains alkaloids which attract heavy metals and expels them from the body. Miso neutralizes the effects of smoking and other environmental pollutants. Scientists credit it with characteristics of lowering cholesterol, preventing heart disease, and aiding digestion when un-pasteurised.
In Japan’s Nara era, miso was reserved for aristocrats and the court. In those days as is the case today, wealth bought health. During the 1500’s miso broke free from imperial circles and gained recognition as an ideal military ration and an important survival food. Aside from being high protein fare that’s easy to carry and prepare, miso contains salt, important for survival in hot climes.
Miso production requires expertise and equipment. First, cooked soy beans are placed in a brewing vat, and occasionally blended with rice, barley, or wheat, to achieve different taste variations, then sea salt and kogi (a fermentation starter) are added to initiate fermentation. The miso is then left to age anywhere from several months to three – four years. The longer it matures, the more refined and expensive it becomes.
Like wine, miso is classified by colour, flavour, aroma, and texture. Darker miso is more distinct in flavour and somewhat saltier than lighter varieties. White miso is noticeably sweeter while yellow miso is pleasantly “dry”.
Traditionally produced imported miso is un-pasteurised and considered to be finer than those pasteurised. The best Japanese producer is Hatcho Miso Co. in business since 1300’s in Okazaki.
Many brands of miso can be found in health food stores, and supermarkets across the continent. It is usually marketed in plastic tubs, squeeze containers, or vacuum-packed bags. Miso must be refrigerated.
Basic miso soup
• 6 cups water
• 4 tbsp soy sauce
• 1 tsp toasted sesame oil
• black pepper to taste
• 1 tsp grated ginger
• 1 cup Chinese or regular cabbage, finely shredded
• 2 carrots, thinly sliced
• 4 – 5 fresh mushrooms, sliced or shiitake mushrooms
• Half a cup snow pea pods
• 1 stalk celery, thinly sliced
• 4 green onions, sliced
• 3 tbsp miso dissolved in ½ cup hot water
Place all ingredients except the last two in a soup pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer for 5 minutes. Add miso and stir well. Garnish with green onions.
N.B. Leeks, okra, green beans, bean sprouts, potatoes, and peppers can also be used.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu