Ingredients, dishes and drinks from Japan by Ad Blankestijn

Friday, December 18, 2015



Paste of fermented soybeans, "miso." みそ、味噌。

Japan's traditional seasoning and also a versatile health food - and on top of that very tasty! Made from fermented soy beans mashed into a thick paste. No traditional Japanese meal is complete without miso. Full of umami, the paste is used as a seasoning for soups and a host of traditional dishes.

Miso originated in China and found its way to Japan in the 7th c., after which it was gradually transformed into an intrinsically Japanese seasoning. Initially it was a luxury product that could only be enjoyed by courtiers and priests. In the 14th century it finally reached ordinary Japanese. At that time, miso was an actual side dish that provided a major source of protein; as a preserved food, it was also carried by wartime troops. This miso side dish was chunky, as the soybeans were left uncrushed and so could be eaten easily with chopsticks. Today we still find this type of side-dish miso in Kinzanji miso in Yuasa (Wakayama).

In the 17th century industrial scale production was started. But small-scale - even home - manufacture also continues. There are about 1,400 producers of miso in Japan. Total production is something to the order of 560,000 tonnes per year. The Japanese consume almost 5 kilos of miso per person per year.

The fermentation and aging process of miso involves a multitude of factors. Variations in this process result in different tastes, colors and textures. Throughout Japan numerous types of miso can be found, each with its own distinct flavor.

Miso can in the first place be divided into three types based on the type of koji-culture being used (koji-kin is a healthy mold that produces many important enzymes; it is also used for other food products and for sake making); one also speaks about three different "malt types," depending on which ingredient the koji culture is developed.

The three basic types of miso are Kome miso, Mugi miso and Mame miso.

Kome miso or Rice-malt miso: the Koji-kin (Koji spores) is grown on rice (ingredients are soybeans, malted rice and salt). This is the most common way – 80% of all miso is made according to this procedure. It can be sweet, semi-sweet or full-bodied, and the color can vary from white, via light yellow, to red. Color differences in miso are the outcome of the strength of the aminocarbonyl or so-called Maillard reaction, which is the result of the combination of amino acids and sugars during the fermentation and aging process. Based on color and taste Kome miso can be further subdivided as follows (there are also many other regional types which are not included below):
  • Shinshu miso (Miso from the Nagano region). The strong-flavored shinshu miso is used widely in households for the daily miso soup.
  • Red miso (Aka-miso). Aka-miso is higher in salt content and rich in amino acids and other nutrients, the result of the breakdown of soybean proteins, and therefore, it is particularly rich in umami. Examples of red miso are Tsugaru miso and Sendai miso.
  • White miso (Shiro-miso). Shiro miso possesses a lower salt content that reveals the sweetness of the rice koji. Shiro miso is preferred in the Kansai area surrounding Kyoto and Osaka. The sweetest type, with a higher percentage of rice than of soybeans, is called Saikyo miso and is exclusively produced in Kyoto. It is an expensive top-quality product that fits well to the Kyoto kitchen with its light tastes and is mainly used in restaurants. In ordinary households, white miso usually appears only on special occasions, as during the New Year, when it is used to make zoni soup.
  • Awase miso, finally, is not a type, but a combination of various kinds of Kome miso; it is usually light in taste.
Mugi miso or Barley-malt miso: the Koji-kin is grown on barley (ingredients are soybeans, malted barley and salt). This type is popular in parts of South-Western Japan (Kyushu, parts of Shikoku and Yamaguchi Pref.). This type of miso is rich in minerals and has a mild aroma. It has a sweet taste and fits to a great variety of dishes. The color is light yellow; there is also a full-bodied type which has a reddish color. About 11% of all miso is Kome miso.

Mame miso or Soybean-malt miso: the Koji-kin is grown on soybeans (ingredients are soybeans, malted soybeans and salt). Also called Hatcho miso after the Hatcho area in the town of Okazaki, where this type of miso is made exclusively by only two producers. Hatcho miso is fermented for two years and has a dark, almost black color. It is a powerful, dry miso that looks a bit like chocolate. It has a bitter flavor and lots of umami. This type is popular in the Nagoya region.

In the past, it was customary for every household to have its own special recipe for miso, one to boast about. This is the origin of the Japanese expression, temae miso, "to sing one's own praises."

Miso is made as follows:
Steamed and crushed soy beans are mixed with water and salt. A koji-culture, that has been separately developed on either steamed rice, steamed barley or steamed soybeans, is added to the mix. The mix is then put into vats of cypress wood where it is allowed to ferment and age for a year. During that process, several micro organisms play a role and all ingredients are transformed into a nutritious paste.

Miso is very nutritious because the paste contains high-quality proteins. Miso also contains amino acids and has a hearty and aromatic taste - it is the embodiment of umami!

Some dishes in which miso plays a large role:
- Miso soup (miso-shiru)
- Gindara no yuanyaki, grilled black cod marinated in miso;
- Saba no misoni, mackerel simmered in miso - the miso masks the fishy taste;
- Tofu dengaku, skewered, grilled tofu coated with a warm miso glaze;
- Miso-zuke, one of the many ways to pickle vegetables.