Gourmet Secrets: Its ALL about Miso
Miso has become the new star ingredient ever since Nobu Matsuhisa started using it in his famous black cod recipe in all his restaurants around the world. Apart from its health benefits, it also has an umami flavor which is the fifth sense and adds an enormous amount of flavor to anything it comes near. Traditionally, the Japanese used miso in soups, with tofu and with both slightly seared fish and sashimi. As a fermented food, miso also has beneficial bacteria which is probably the reason why it is so prevalent in traditional Japanese fish recipes. Nobu’s recipe uses a traditional mix of sake, mirin, sugar and white miso, which are heated together and then used as a marinade on black cod for four days before grilling.
Miso means ‘fermented beans’ in Japanese. In Japan, people begin their day with a bowl of miso soup, believed to stimulate digestion and energize the body. A traditional ingredient in Japanese and Chinese diets, miso paste is made from fermented soybeans and grains and contains millions of beneficial bacteria. There are hundreds of different types of miso and different versions are linked with regional cuisines, identities and flavors. Miso is rich in essential minerals and a good source of various B vitamins, vitamins E, K and folic acid.
Miso and soy sauce are the two most important seasoning ingredients in Japanese cuisine – they could be called the flavours of Japan – and they share the same origin, although miso is the older of the two. Despite the Japanese way of life becoming more Western over the last 150 years, boiled rice, a small dish of pickles and a bowl of miso soup remains the archetypal Japanese meal. Millions of Japanese people still begin the day with miso soup.
Miso is widely believed to be derived from an ancient salt preserve called kooky bishio, a fermented mixture of salt and grains such as rice, soya beans and wheat. The technique for making miso probably came over from China at the same time as Buddhism; certainly by the eighth century miso was being made inside temple grounds and by farmers. Miso was an important field supply for warring samurai during the 150 year long civil war, which finally came to an end in the early 17th century.
Until recently, one would see straw ropes of miso-dama (miso balls) hanging under the eaves of rural farm houses. Soya beans would be cooked, crushed and made into balls the size of ostrich eggs, then tied with straw ropes and hung up to grow a natural mould. The mouldy balls would then be mixed with salt and water to make miso paste. Miso balls are a rare sight in Japan today.
The color of miso ranges from light cream to almost black, taking in the golden brown of peanut butter and dark brown on the way. In general, the lighter the colour, the less salty the miso. All miso has a distinctive fermented bean flavour and aroma.
There are four basic varieties of miso. The most popular variety, kome miso (rice miso), accounts for about 80 per cent of total domestic production. It is made from boiled, crushed soya beans mixed with a culture called koji, made from rice. Salt is added and the mouldy mixture is left to mature for six months to three years. Mugi miso is made with soya beans, wheat or barley, koji and salt and is sometimes called inaka miso, meaning country miso, as it is the variety often made by farmers in the countryside.
Miso is a very versatile seasoning ingredient. It can simple be dissolved with dashi stock to make soup or used in many simmering dishes and regional hot-pots. The light coloured shiro miso (white miso) is sometimes called saikyo miso. A regional speciality of Kyoto it makes an excellent marinade for tofu, fish and meat. Dengaku miso, good for coating grilled tofu is a delicious mixture of miso and a variety of seasonal ingredients. Miso is also used to make dressings.