The tradition of making miso is at least 1200 years old, but Tomoko Onuki didn’t experience it until she was 25. It’s a surprising fact to learn about her, given she grew up in Tokyo and currently makes the soybean paste from scratch for her Gold Coast business, Rice Culture.
“No one around me made miso when I was a kid,” she says. “The first time I saw miso-making was when I went to film a documentary on a rural family in Japan.”
It was 1994 and Japan’s economic boom was tailing off. So was the country’s obsession with Western culture and convenience, she says. “We had lost a lot of our traditions, but as the economy went down, the younger generation started revisiting our traditional culture.”
And for Onuki, her experience was entirely self-taught.
“I made my first batch after I had my kid in 2002 following instructions from a book,” she says.
When she moved to the Gold Coast, she worked as a translator and interpreter. Through a mutual friend, she met Yukiyo Copley, a Japanese expat who shared her love of fermenting and cooking food from scratch. They even sourced koji directly from Japan to make miso.
Koji is derived from inoculated rice and essentially kickstarts the fermentation process in many Japanese foods – from sake to soy sauce – but when the tsunami hit Fukushima, causing the nuclear disaster in 2011, the pair thought about ways to make large amounts of their own koji at home. This inspired them to launch their business, Rice Culture, which is featured on an upcoming episode of Food Safari in December.
The self-declared “fermentation fanatics” have come a long way since creating their first semi-disastrous batch of miso for Rice Culture.
“We cooked 10 kg of soy beans with no idea that it would increase so much in quantity with water, and had to manually squash them. Now we have a commercial mincer, but back then I used my hand mixer which died within 20 minutes and we spent the rest of the night – and early morning – silently mashing mountains of beans with hand-held potato mashers,” says Onuki.
A lot has changed since those early days – with Onuki now essentially running Rice Culture since Copley’s departure from the business – but the company still keeps things relatively lo-fi.
“It is really a simple bench-space situation and we do all our cooking over gas cooker in a pot,” says Onuki.
Aside from creating its award-winning miso in Nerang, on the Gold Coast, Rice Culture also produces shio koji and runs workshops on how to make Japanese fermented foods, conducted in both English and Japanese.
For people unfamiliar with shio koji, Onuki explains that, “it is a healthy natural salt and MSG substitute and meat tenderiser”. It offers a bold umami boost to foods and when you use shio koji to marinate meat, fish, cheese or any other protein, it essentially breaks down the protein and tenderises it.
“The first time I had chicken thigh marinated in shio koji, I was blown away by the flavour and tender texture,” she says.
While making miso involves playing the long game – after mashing cooked soybeans, adding koji, salt and mixing it, it’s left to ferment for at least six months – producing shio koji is a shorter process. Comprising koji, salt and water, it takes about a week or so to ferment, depending on the weather. Both underscore the importance and power of their key starter ingredient: koji.
“If you look at recipes for Japanese dishes, most have soy sauce, miso, sake and mirin, which are all made out of koji. So without fermented food, or specifically koji, there will be no Japanese food whatsoever! Koji was declared as our ‘national culture’ in 2004 [in Japan] for a very good reason,” she adds.
The significance of fermented foods is underlined in the Rice Culture workshops, where Onuki serves dishes that demonstrate the versatility of both miso and shio koji – from beef marinated in shio koji to desserts presented with miso caramel.
She encourages people to make miso at home because the flavour can be adjusted to taste (“the more koji you put in, the faster it ferments and sweeter it becomes, and the more soy beans [you add], the more umami you get”), and points out that it’s rare for miso-making to be an utter disaster.
“If the koji is strong and healthy, you can’t really go wrong as it is [the culture] that does the work, not us and they work for their own survival, so are quite tough at adjusting to changes in the environment.”
And even though miso and shio koji are Japanese ingredients with rich histories, she’s impressed by how locals have embraced them.
“I know a lot of people in Australia use miso as a Vegemite substitute… spreading on bread with avocado which is something we would have never thought of – miso on bread!” She’s also inspired by what her workshop students have tried – from putting tomatoes and avocado in their miso soup to experimenting with koji to cure beef.
“Some people seem to be using [it] to age beef fast, which makes sense as the enzymes in the koji would break the protein into amino acids, which I guess is what ageing meat is about,” she says. “I have never tried it myself … but am planning to give it a go.”