"I grew up in a Japanese family," says chef Chase Kojima. "Miso was always in the fridge."
It makes sense that the fermented soybean paste was a permanent fixture in his San Francisco home – his father Sachio was a legendary chef with the San Francisco Gate describing him as a master who, "owned the best sushi restaurant in the city at Kabuto".
Kojima's dad made miso at home. Unlike typical versions, it was young (rather than aged) and resembled the chunky condiment known as moromi-miso. "It's more like the miso that you actually eat," says Kojima, who is now based in Sydney and runs various restaurants in Australia such as Sokyo and Kiyomi.
Despite his dad's culinary reputation, Kojima admits the miso soup at home was better than what was offered at his father's restaurant.
He laughs and says, "it was a very busy restaurant", so the miso soup was pre-made and kept warm. "When you do that, the flavour of the miso is all gone."
Kojima believes that pre-cooked miso was typical of most eateries in America. "Good restaurants now, they'll make the miso to order and it changes everything – the aroma, everything."
It's something he would know – Kojima has spent his lifetime perfecting miso.
"Miso soup is one thing that you need to get good at, growing up as a chef," he says. Kojima remembers visiting friends who were home cooks – and they'd brag about how great their miso was. "I always felt pressure, like I need to make it better than these amateurs!” he says. So the chef would keep testing his version, to win over friends.
"Miso soup is one thing that you need to get good at, growing up as a chef."
Miso is so important in Japanese culture that there's always a key scene in Japanese dramas that centres on chefs preparing it in a restaurant. It often involves a busy head chef passing on broth-making instructions to junior staff –usually during a high-stress situation, like launching a new restaurant. Although Kojima clarifies that miso soup doesn't actually have a recipe. "It's always to taste," he says.
On-screen, the younger chefs will produce their version, serve it in a small ramekin and present it to the head chef for approval. "You see it in dramas, but it happens in every restaurant in Japan. You have to get approval from the head chef," he says. "I remember doing that to my dad. I'd make it, I'd pass it to my dad and he'd tell me what to do."
But Kojima was just assisting his father – he didn't have plans to actually work in hospitality. His dad believed a career in IT would have more security, and encouraged his son to pursue that path instead.
"At the same time, he made me help him at his work," says Kojima. His dad's mixed messages were no doubt confusing – but they inadvertently proved to be helpful, because Kojima's IT career stalled after the 9/11 terrorist attack and the economic downturn that followed. "There wasn't much IT work," says Kojima, "but my dad's restaurant was still very busy."
As the chef worked – and travelled – across the world, miso soup was always a constant. He spent time at five different branches of Nobu (Las Vegas, Dubai, London, LA and The Bahamas), and found himself preparing special soup blends with specific ratios of red and white miso, to serve diners.
While it's typical for chefs to credit "kokoro" (the love that you put into your food) for the miso's memorable flavour, Kojima could tell that Hasegawa had been very creative in his approach. "Usually you use konbu and bonito flakes to make dashi [stock for miso soup], but he used good katsuobushi [bonito flakes] only." In fact, Hasegawa incorporated katsuobushi that had been aged for many years.
Kojima has been inventive with his use of miso at Sydney's Sokyo, too.
"I'd dehydrate it and make it into a crunchy miso powder, just to add textures to sashimi dishes or any type of dish," he says. The chef also stirs miso into a lot of sauces, throws it into ice-cream for a salty caramel hit, and cures egg yolk in a miso-mirin mix, ageing it for a day so it becomes gooey and sticky. He also shaves the miso-cured yolk into savoury flakes, like he would with bottarga.
"Miso is like a secret weapon," he says.
He also serves it in a more traditional way at Sokyo, too – with udon noodles or salmon, perhaps, or as a simple broth in a set meal.
His approach to the soup has been shaped by decades of eating and preparing it. Sometimes he adds more red miso to create extra depth in the broth. He might throw in some sansho powder or grated sesame seeds, too. At Sokyo, the chef includes a splash of citrus at the end: "a couple of drops of yuzu juice, it changes everything."
"Miso is like a secret weapon."
At home, he turns miso into a meal – by adding veggies, pork slices and tofu – which is his version of tonjiru.
Despite these variations, Kojima also has some longstanding rules.
He always uses the back of a spoon when scooping miso for the broth – it makes it easier to stir and dissolve the paste into the hot water.
Further, the flavour and aroma start to fade as soon as you finish preparing the soup: "so you want to serve it as soon as it's made."
Your broth's temperature is also a deal-breaker. "I think miso soup has to be served super hot. If I get a not-hot miso soup, it turns me off," the chef says.
Even with the onset of warmer weather, Kojima will continue his miso-drinking rituals.
"Asians in general, we like soup," he says. "We don't use spoons – we pick it up, the bowl, and we sip it. And you just go, ah!" he says. "It's like your morning coffee, when you drink your miso soup, it's such a comforting taste."
Chase Kojima's miso soup
Miso soup is made to taste, so adjust the ingredients to your preference. Kojima recommends using two tablespoons of miso for one serve of soup – but you can vary it according to how savoury you want the broth.
- 4 cups water
- Bonito flakes (katsuobushi)
- Miso paste
- Aburaage (tofu pockets), optional
- Mushrooms, optional
- Spring onions, optional
- Tofu, optional
1. Add water and kombu to a saucepan and heat on the stove until it's almost at a boil (99°C). Remove the kombu and wait until the temperature has reduced to around 95°C.
2. Add the bonito flakes to the pan (Kojima recommends adding a lot). Keep the broth cooking at a temperature above 85°C. Allow it to brew for 10 minutes and then strain the bonito flakes from the broth.
3. Add optional ingredients to the pan – aburaage, mushrooms or spring onions – and bring to the boil.
4. Take the pan off the heat and add miso paste (note: don't cook the miso, it's important that it's added when the broth is very hot).
5. Add the tofu to the broth. If you're adding a lot of tofu, have the tofu sitting in hot water in a strainer so it's easy to add into the soup.
6. Serve immediately.
Miso soup ingredients can be found at Asian grocers.