Have you ever found yourself staring at a shelf in the grocery store that holds an ingredient that is completely foreign to you? This is a frequent experience for me in Tokyo. It is usually easy to ignore strange (and sometimes scary) food items when your favorite condiment or box of crackers is just down the aisle calling out your name. However, I’ve realized that the problem with sticking only to the familiar is that there are so many beautiful flavors out there that can give a unique twist to a favorite recipe. Breaking away from our grocery shopping routines can be difficult or even a little scary…but also completely worth it.
Today’s ingredient is Japanese miso paste. Made from fermented soybeans, miso paste has roots in both China and Japan, dating back to the 4th century. Many Japanese people eat miso soup every day, which may explain (at least in part) why the Japanese are such a healthy bunch. Some studies have shown that miso soup may help decrease the risk of breast cancer in women and can also help maintain healthy digestion because of the high amount of fiber. Miso paste has health benefits on its own, but when added to nutrient-rich stock (typically made with kombu, a type of seaweed) miso soup becomes a powerhouse of healthy eating. An easy way to make miso-based soup if you don’t have kombu on hand is to simply add the paste to hot water and then stuff it full of vitamin-rich vegetables like spinach and kale. There is something comforting about the flavor of warm miso soup. It’s creamy without being heavy, and the flavor is slightly sweet, salty, and nutty—as a result of the rice and/or barley involved in the fermenting process.
Miso paste can be somewhat difficult to find, but grocery stores in the United States are beginning to carry it and it can also be ordered online. My first experience buying miso paste was in Tokyo. I picked up a clear plastic container of dark-colored miso paste and tried my hand at making miso soup. Not realizing that I had purchased the stronger-tasting paste, I was a little shocked when I took the first sip of soup. I later learned to judge the strength of miso by its color. Shiro miso, or white miso, is light gold and is mild in taste. Aka miso, or red miso, is a dark shade of rust and has a stronger flavor. The ingredients used in miso can also determine the flavor profile. Barley, rice, soybeans and salt are all possible pieces of the miso puzzle. Regardless of the ingredients used, the end result is a thick paste that is pleasantly salty.
Now that you know all of this information about miso, you may be wondering what on earth to do with it aside from miso soup. Miso is used in countless ways in Japanese cuisine and can be added to many recipes you probably already know. Kyoto is famous for marinating fish in miso. The process results in an infusion of rich miso flavor and creates a beautifully moist and silky texture. Hokkaido, in northern Japan, is where my favorite ramen, miso ramen, was born. The miso is combined with a fatty chicken, pork or fish broth and creates an amazingly thick, creamy soup that is perfect for soothing and warming the soul on a cold winter day. During warmer months, miso can be used as a glaze for meat, a dressing for salad, or in a dip similar to hummus.
If you decide to venture into miso-land (which I hope you do), consider using shiro miso (white miso) to start. The flavor is mild and buttery and easy to get used to if you are a little wary. It also tends to blend well with a wider range or ingredients. Start small by mixing in a couple tablespoons of miso paste to some sour cream or plain yogurt. The options from there become endless. Think of miso paste the way you would hummus, but with many more possibilities!
– Rachael White
Rachael White is the author of the blogs Set the Table and Tokyo Terrace. After four years of living, eating, and entertaining in Tokyo, Japan, she and her family have relocated to Denver, Colorado. Rachael is constantly searching for new ways to make entertaining easier and more interesting for guests in a variety of environments and situations. In addition to food blogging, her recipes have been published in cookbooks including Foodista Best of Food Blogs and Peko Peko: A Charity Cookbook for Japan and in Japan’s Daily Yomiuri newspaper. Originally from Minnesota, Rachael strives to recreate recipes and settings that reflect Midwestern comfort with a modern twist.