Miraculous Miso: Ancient Japanese Staple Warms the Soul in Winter Soups

(Updated October 15, 2021)

Some people believe in miracles. I believe in miracle foods — and miso has got to be one of the most miraculous concoctions of all time. With impressive 12,000 year-old origins dating back to Japan’s Nara era, miso is surrounded by fascinating history with a proven reputation for being one of the healthiest condiments in the world. In ancient times, the highly nutritious paste was a luxury reserved only for aristocrats — back in the days when wealth could buy health!

During Asian war years (about 500 years ago), miso broke free from imperial circles and gained recognition as an ideal military ration and an important survival food. Aside from being high protein fare that’s easy to carry and prepare, miso contains prized salt which was believed to lift the fighting spirits of Samurai soldiers. In the years following the wars, miso gained popularity as a handy staple — and common folk throughout the country started creating their own regional versions according to climate, lifestyle, and raw materials available for brewing.

A History of Miso

Sometimes called “wine of the Orient,” miso is a fermented creation that takes as much skill and patience to brew as the finest wines in the world. And, like winemaking, it’s an art as varied and controversial as any. But it is not a wine, although it is a healthful drink which frequently replaces tea or coffee.

Miso is a slow-fermented soybean paste that is indispensable to Japanese cuisine. That wonderful savory, salty, malty rich flavour familiar in Japanese dishes — especially soups — owes its gusto to miso. In Japan, miso in the morning is the only way to start the day; the longevity of Japanese people is often attributed to their healthy eating habits which revolve around this wonder food.

Miso has gained recognition as being a detoxifying food with power to rid the body of unwanted elements, including radioactive substances. The rich brown paste contains an alkaloid which attracts heavy metals and draws them out of the body. After the nuclear reactor disaster in Chernobyl, truckloads of miso were imported into Europe with hopes of minimizing the damaging side effects of radiation. Besides being a powerful agent against radiation, miso is reputed to neutralize the effects of smoking and other environmental pollutants.

Studies have shown that those who include miso as a regular part of their diet are less apt to suffer from some forms of liver, breast, and skin cancers. It is also credited with lowering cholesterol and helping to prevent heart disease. Unpasteurized miso is rich in lactic acid bacteria and enzymes which aid in digestion.

Miso supplies the body with protein, fibre, and carbohydrates and is a good source of essential amino acids, minerals and vitamins. It is low in fat, making it a remarkable form of nutrition — one of the best backpacking foods I have yet to come across. It’s true, miso is salty, but since it is more flavourful than plain table salt, I have found that my actual sodium intake has decreased since I started using miso as a base for soup, sauces, gravies and stews.

Making Miso

Making miso is a fascinating process as common in Asian kitchens as canning fruit is in the Western world. Of course, one needs special expertise and equipment for the craft. Although there are many varieties of miso, soybeans are the number one ingredient. Cooked soybeans are put into a brewing vat, sometimes mixed with other grains like rice, barley, or wheat, which contribute to the character of the finished product — then sea salt and a starter or fermenting agent is added to get the mixture working. The miso is then left to age anywhere from several months to up to three or four years, and the longer it matures, the dearer it becomes.

Like wine, miso is classified by colour, flavour, aroma, and texture. Darker miso ranges from reddish to deep robust browns and is more distinct in flavour and somewhat saltier than lighter varieties. White miso is noticeably sweeter, while yellow miso is a pleasant medium between the dark and lighter versions. Some miso is very smooth while other types are rough and lumpy. Traditionally produced and imported miso is unpasteurized and considered the finest on the market. More reasonably priced miso is manufactured by Western companies and is usually pasteurized and contains preservatives. Regardless from whence it came, I have not yet met a miso I didn’t enjoy!

One of the world’s most renowned makers of miso is, without doubt, Hatcho Miso Company in Japan, commonly known as the Emperor’s choice. This company has been brewing it since the 1300s in the town of Okazaki. Here, miso is still made in the way of the old world, with many rows of large, ancient, cedar casks held together with bamboo ropes and secured in position by tons of rocks — so that even the most violent earthquake could not stir the precious brew underneath. Each vat is guarded under tons of pressure where the miso ferments naturally for up to three years, or until perfection is reached.

Many brands of miso can be found in health food stores and larger supermarkets across the country. It is usually marketed in plastic tubs, squeeze containers or vacuum-packed bags and should be found in the refrigerated section of the store. I have seen miso sold in bulk in larger cities and this, of course, makes the most economical buy. Markets that cater to Asian fare offer the best selections to choose from. Like wine, price ranges according to age, but a little miso goes a long way, so even the most expensive brands pan out to be well worth the investment.

Using Miso

Now that you’ve got some miso, start by sampling its taste. Boil some water in a tea kettle. Get out your favourite mug and fill it with hot water. Add a teaspoon or two of miso and stir until dissolved. Then sit back, sip, and enjoy. This brothy drink makes a satisfying snack whenever you need a quick picker-upper. When I’m camping, I rely on a mug of miso to carry me between regular sit-down meals. I also find it’s the perfect “cuppa” to take the chill out of winter woodland trails.

In the kitchen. I especially like using miso as a base for soup, and some of my finest creations are so simple, I’m almost ashamed to accept such raves from my dining guests. All you need to fill your tureen with an impressive soup is a little miso and a lot of thought.

Use miso to enhance the flavour and colour of sauces, gravies, or stews. Simply omit salt in the recipes and add one or two tablespoons of miso dissolved in 1/4 cup of hot water and simmer into rich goodness.

(Editor’s Note: Due to the proliferation of genetically modified soybeans on the market, make sure your miso is organic.)

Lin’s Basic Miso Soup

View the full printable recipe

This recipe makes about 8 cups, but is easily cut in half or doubled. Be creative with your choice of vegetables. I like to make a different batch every time.

Ingredients:

  • 6 cups water
  • 4 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • dash of fresh grated black pepper
  • 1 tsp fresh grated ginger
  • 1 cup Chinese or regular cabbage, finely shredded
  • 2 thinly sliced carrots
  • 4 or 5 fresh mushrooms or a few broken, dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 handful snow pea pods
  • 1 stalk thinly sliced celery
  • 4 chopped green onions
  • 3 Tbsp miso dissolved in 1/2 cup hot water

Editor’s note: To read another Vitality feature about miso, with more recipes, click here: https://vitalitymagazine.com/article/marvellous-miso/

Linda Gabris is an avid cook who enjoys sharing her grandmother’s old recipes and medicinal preparations as they were recorded in the handwritten journals passed down to her. Linda also enjoys gardening and foraging for edible wild foods. Over the years, she has taught cooking courses in Prince George, B.C., with a focus on healthy eating, food preparation, and International cuisine.

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