For 2,500 years, Asians have been savoring the taste and healthful properties of miso, soybeans magically transformed using salt and a microorganism called koji. In even more ancient times, Neolithic Jomon people discovered how to make fermented pastes from grains and fish. For the modern Japanese, miso is a part of everyday life and an essential ingredient in the Japanese cultural identity.
Miso enjoys countless applications throughout Japanese cuisine. One popular main dish uses fish, mackerel being a favorite, slathered in a thick layer of the rich paste and grilled to perfection. Another example of the versatility of miso is the drinkers' favorite morokyu, a pleasing side featuring chunky moromi miso as a dip for spears of crisp, chilled cucumber. In kaiseki cuisine, a dish known as dengaku drizzles creamy white miso on purple medallions of grilled or sauteed eggplant, recalling a crest of snow atop Mt. Fuji. Even desserts in Japan have utilized this fascinating seasoning.
Of course, the most familiar vehicle for miso, both in Japan and abroad, is miso soup or misoshiru. All but the most formal of Japanese meals can be accompanied by a serving of this satisfying Japanese soul food, and there is no better way to begin the day than with a bowl at breakfast. Almost as comforting as a mother's embrace, miso soup can easily become an addiction.
Miso soup is not only good but also good for you. The soy provides protein made more readily digestible by the traditional kelp base. Miso is well known for its ability to detoxify, and the active cultures derived from fermentation, when preserved by avoiding boiling, benefit the gut. As with any soup, adding a cup of miso to your table facilitates eating volumetrically, delivering the sensation of satiety with a modicum of calories.
Some Westerners have been known to whip up faux miso soup, an insipid blend of miso paste in water. This misinterpretation skips the dashi soup base, the warp and weft necessary for good soup. Although miso thinned with water may have its applications in the kitchen, it should not be mistaken for an edible dish.
For the real deal, numerous types of dashi can be prepared, but the easiest is simply made from good quality kelp—available in Asian markets—soaked overnight in water. After straining out the seaweed, bring the subtle, amber broth to a boil and then allow it to cool slightly. Set aside a small amount of warm dashi and briskly whisk in a dollop of miso to taste. Choose red or akamiso for a bolder flavor, white shiromiso for the refined taste preferred in Kyoto, or a blended awamiso when you just cannot chose. For those concerned with sodium, low salt varieties are easily found.
In Japan, miso soup is almost always served with something solid, called gu in Japanese, added into the broth. Tangy curls of green scallions, a raw egg, cubes of potatoes or soft tofu, or certain types of sea vegetables are the usual suspects. Any additions should reflect a sensitive appreciation of the seasons, with lighter and more flavorful choices in the spring and summer, while hearty ingredients should be reserved for fall and winter.
Whatever your preference, miso soup can be a great addition to your diet. Start simply and then explore the plentiful varieties of this versatile dish. We hope that, like us, you will find this Japanese staple fulfilling to the palate and advantageous to your health.