Miso (fermented soybean paste) is not only considered a condiment, spice, and seasoning in Japan but a way of life as well. I can think of no equivalent food in Western cuisine that has had such a powerful impact on culinary culture, not to mention societal relations.
Miso is believed to have been created in China, brought to the Korean Peninsula, and then introduced to Japan – the same route taken by many of Japan’s fermented and preserved condiments, including soy sauce. By the Nara era (710-84), miso was being made and sold in the city of Nara, and was even being taxed. The Engishiki, compiled in 927, was the first historical document to mention miso. A popular form of miso among aristocrats during this period was name (“licking”) miso, a form of highly spiced and salted miso mixed with pickled vegetables that the nobles enjoyed while drinking sake.
By the Kamakura era (1185-1333), Buddhist strictures were influencing everyone from the higher classes and samurai down to the peasantry. Zen monks, highly experienced at making miso because it was one of the key components of shojin ryori (vegetarian Buddhist cuisine) helped introduce the flavorful paste throughout Japan.
Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) did much to popularize miso soup as the first Japanese power breakfast. He recognized that miso would assist warriors during times of battle by supplying them with the necessary protein they needed to fight on. By 1600, a typical breakfast consisted of miso soup, rice, and pickles, which to many Japanese constitutes the perfect breakfast even today.
Currently there are several hundred types of miso being sold, each made according to the climate and taste preferences of the region in which it is produced. Miso can range in color from a rich brownish-red to light yellow; typically, the darker the miso, the higher the salt content. It is often said that hatcho miso, made in Aichi Prefecture since the early 1500s, is one of the few remaining traditionally made kinds of miso in Japan, and one of the most flavorful. Try some of this delicious deep red miso in your next bowl of miso soup as a variation. If you prefer a milder version, then use white miso.
Basic Miso Soup
- 3 1/3 cups hot dashi fish stock (can be made from kombu kelp, katsuobushi [dried bonito flakes], or a combination of the two; instant dashi granules or powder also acceptable)
- 4 tbsps miso (use red, white, or light-colored miso or a combination thereof)
Place the stock in a saucepan and heat until very hot. Add whatever ingredients you are planning to use (see recipe notes for 3 of my favorite variations), and cook until done.
Place the miso into a small bowl and mix with a little of the stock, using a miso muddler to make a thick paste. Just before serving, add the miso paste to the soup; reheat it if necessary, taking care not to boil the soup after adding the miso, since this will make it taste bitter.
Ladle the soup into soup bowls – lacquerware ones not only retain heat well; they also add a touch of authenticity – then garnish and serve immediately.
Some Favorite Combinations:
Tofu and Wakame Miso Soup – Use ½ block of silky tofu, cut into small cubes, and 1 ounce (30 grams) of rinsed and chopped raw wakame kelp. Garnish with mixed green onions or negi (Japanese leeks).
Clam and Trefoil Miso Soup – Soak 1 ¼ cups of small clams for 30 minutes in a bowl of cold salt water to rid them of sand and impurities. Drain and rinse well. Place in the hot stock and bring to a boil, discarding any clams that don’t open. Turn heat down to a simmer and add 4 tablespoons of akadashi (a type of mixed miso) to the soup. Garnish with chopped mitsuba (trefoil) or seri (Japanese parsley).
Pumpkin and Abura-age Miso Soup – Cut up 2 ounces (60 grams) of unpeeled kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) and ½ sheet of abura-age (fried tofu). Prior to using the fried tofu, pour boiling water over it to get rid of any excess oil. Garnish with minced Japanese leeks or green onion (white part only).
Photo attribution: Copyright: jedimaster / 123RF Stock Photo
Leave a note in the comments section (see below) if you make this dish!