The protein-rich fermented soybean paste called miso is one of the world’s great (and instant) flavour foundations, and once you start thinking of it like that instead of a mysterious Japanese ingredient, you’ll discover it adds not just protein but the savoury quality called umami to all sorts of dishes, including soups, salad dressings, vegetables, stews, braises, grilling glazes and marinades.
According to the The Oxford Companion to Food, miso was first developed in China, where it, along with soy sauce, evolved from a preceding condiment (made with meat, salt, and wine fermented with a starter culture prepared with grain) mentioned in the Analects of Confucius. According to archaeological evidence, by 200 BC, a meatless fermented condiment made from soybeans was being used in that country. The first written reference of it in Japan dates from AD 701, and it has long played a starring role in the traditional diet there.
Processed soy products have changed wildly in the ensuing centuries, and for many, the presence of soybeans in a food is good reason to skip it – whether the concern is phytoestrogens, genetic engineering, or deforestation in Brazil. But miso is not hydrogenated soybean oil – the fermented paste, which has a cure-all reputation along the lines of apple cider vinegar, shows just how great soy, a rather notorious staple crop, can be. And if you’ve only experienced a miso vinaigrette or the requisite bowl of miso at a sushi restaurant, there’s a whole centuries-long multinational tradition to explore.
“Miso making was probably introduced to Japan from China through the Korean peninsula that juts into the Sea of Japan,” writes Japanese food authority Elizabeth Andoh in Washoku: Recipes From the Japanese Home Kitchen. Andoh is an American who moved to Japan more than 40 years ago, and her rigorously researched cookbooks are a window into the food and culture of her adopted home. “There are hundreds – possibly thousands – of different types of miso that the Japanese regularly enjoy,” and the different versions are linked with regional cuisines and identifies.
“Sometimes komékoji, a cultured rice spore medium, is added to the soybean mash to enhance the fermentation process,” she goes on to explain. “Other miso pastes are made with cultured wheat or millet, or combinations of grains and beans. Still others are made with just soybeans.”
The variety and ratio of raw ingredients and the length of fermentation time produce a final product with flavours that range from sweet and mild to salty and rich or pungent; colours that range from pale straw to fudge-brown; and textures that range from smooth to coarse, or inaka – that is, rustic.
A miso may be named for its colour, region, or the koji starter with which it’s made. Each type has its own protocol, so to speak: A dark miso isn’t simply a light miso that’s been allowed to age longer, for instance, and even though a dark miso early in the fermentation process may look pale in colour, it will taste raw and unfinished – the saltiness will trump the savouriness, in other words.
Here are some of the varieties you may come across:
Light or shiro miso
Made from soybeans and rice and fermented for no longer than two months, shiro (the word means ‘white’ in Japanese) is light in colour and sweet to mildly salty. Shiro makes a great gateway miso. It gives oomph to a salad dressing or sautéed vegetables; it’s also delicious smeared on white fish fillets or eggplant halves and grilled. One basic variety of shiro is Shinshu, from the Japanese Alps. Another type, Saikyo miso, is creamy and sweet, with a hint of caramel. If a recipe for a savoury dish calls for light miso and what you have is Saikyo, Andoh suggests combining it with genmai miso (see Awase miso, below) for a better balance of sweet and salty in the finished dish.
Red or aka miso
If a recipe calls for dark miso, you’ll want to use an aka (literally, ‘red’) miso. Russet in colour, this type is made from a higher proportion of soybeans to rice (or barley), is fermented for up to three years, and is saltier and deeper in flavour. One versatile type of aka miso is Sendai, from the northern city of the same name. It is full-flavored and nuanced and plays well with ingredients that aren’t in the Japanese wheelhouse – tomatoes and olive oil, for example. Work some Sendai miso into your next meatloaf or tomato sauce for pasta, and you’ll understand what I mean. Trust me, it will soon become one of your go-to secret ingredients.
What separates this rich, nutty miso from the pack is that it’s made with wholegrain brown rice (genmai) in addition to soybeans. Miso that utilises any whole grain is usually saltier than those made from hulled grain, which is something to take into account when using it in a recipe.
Soybeans alone (without an assist from a grain) are used to make this smooth, stiff, deep-brown paste, the miso of choice in Aiichi Prefecture. The strongest-tasting miso, it’s primarily used in hearty stews and braises; it also makes a killer ingredient in a marinade or glaze for ribs or chicken wings.
An awase (pronounced ‘ah-wah-say’) miso is a mix of different miso types, and you can either buy a premade blend or make your own so you can control the flavour, colour, and texture. Begin with equal amounts shiro and genmai, say, and then tinker with the proportions until the paste is more savoury than straight shiro yet milder than the genmai alone. Try rubbing it on a chicken before roasting or working it into a buttery pasta sauce instead of parmesan; the end result won’t scream ‘Asia’ but will simply be deep-flavoured and delicious. (That, in a nutshell, is umami.)
Buying and storing notes
As per the ‘Well, Duh’ Department, look for organic (non-GMO) miso. And as with so many food products, look for brands that contain the bare minimum of ingredients: soybeans, water, salt, and a grain. Nancy Singleton Hachisu, wife of an organic Japanese farmer (“I came to Japan for the food but stayed for love”) writes in Japanese Farm Food that you may want to try one semi-mild miso before you start experimenting with others.
“I use brown rice miso, but barley miso is an excellent (though a bit darker-flavored) alternative,” Hachisu adds.
Always refrigerate an opened container of miso. Shiro miso can be kept in the fridge up to three weeks or so; other types will last up two to four months with optimal aroma.
This story originally appeared on takepart.com. Read the original here.
Miso and eggplant are just a fantastic combination. This dish, known in Japan as nasu dengaku, is more traditionally served as a thick miso sauce topping eggplants that have been halved lengthways and grilled. I prefer this version for home cooking, as it suits the larger European eggplants, and the extra roasting of the miso gives a lovely nutty-sweet flavour.
Inspired by Nobu’s miso cod, chef Spencer Patrick cooks us his signature dish using local produce from Port Douglas, and line caught coral trout.
The stock for this famous Japanese noodle soup is made from pork bones, which are boiled for hours, breaking down the collagen, marrow and fat, unleashing a creamy, white liquid. Traditionally, the eggs are boiled in the stock; add in step 3 of the recipe with the flavourings if cooking this way. You can make the stock up to the end of step 1 a day ahead.