Miso: The Basics

MISO-1
Three types of miso

Miso (みそ or 味噌) is a traditional Japanese seasoning produced by fermenting rice, barley and/or soybeans, with salt and a yeast called kōjikin (麹菌) in Japanese, the most typical miso being made with soybeans. The result is a thick paste used for sauces and spreads, pickling vegetables or meats, and mixing with dashi soup stock to serve as miso soup, Misoshiru (味噌汁), a Japanese culinary staple. High in protein and rich in vitamins and minerals, miso played an important nutritional role in feudal Japan. Miso is still very widely used in Japan, both in traditional and modern cooking, and has been gaining world-wide interest. Miso is typically salty, but its flavor and aroma depend on various factors in the ingredients and fermentation process. Different varieties of miso have been described as salty, sweet, earthy, fruity, and savory, and there is an extremely wide variety of miso available.

MISO-8
Miso from Nagano Prefecture on sale in Kyoto

The predecessor of miso originated in China during the 3rd century BC or earlier, and it is probable that this, together with related fermented soy-based foods, was introduced to Japan at the same time as Buddhism in the 6th century AD.This fermented food was called “Shi”.
Until the Muromachi era, miso was made without grinding the soybeans, somewhat like natto. In the Kamakura era, a common meal was made up of a bowl of rice, some dried fish, a serving of miso, and a fresh vegetable. In the Muromachi era, Buddhist monks discovered that soybeans could be ground into a paste, spawning new cooking methods where miso was used to flavor other foods.
In the Sengoku (Feudal) era, miso was useful as a military provision and precious nourishing food for soldiers.
During the Edo period miso was also called hishio and kuki.
In the modern era, the industrial method of producing miso in large quantities was established and it became rare to make miso at home, although miso made in farms has suddenly become fashinable as a health food.

MISO-2
Miso being fermented inside a large wood cask

VARIETIES (FLAVOUR)

The taste, aroma, texture, and appearance of any specific miso vary with the miso type as well as the region and season for which the miso was made. The ingredients used, temperature and duration of fermentation, salt content, variety of kōji/yeast, and fermenting vessel all contribute. The most common flavor categories of soy miso are:

Shiromiso, “white miso”
Akamiso, “red miso”

MISO-5
Kuromiso, “black miso”

Hatchomiso
White and red (shiromiso and akamiso) are the basic types of miso available in all of Japan as well as overseas. Different varieties are preferred in particular regions. For example, in the eastern Kantō region that includes Tokyo, the lighter shiromiso is popular, while in the western Kansai region encompassing Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe, darker brownish hatchomiso is preferred, and akamiso is favored in the Tokai area.

MISO-4
Akamiso and shiromiso

VARIETIES (INGREDIENTS)

The raw materials used to produce miso may include any mix of soybeans, barley, rice, buckwheat, millet, rye, wheat, hemp seed, and cycad, among others. Lately, producers in other countries have also begun selling miso made from chick peas, corn, azuki beans, amaranth, and quinoa. Fermentation time ranges from as little as five days to several years. The wide variety of Japanese miso is difficult to classify, but is commonly done by grain type, color, taste, and background.

MISO-6
Kinzanji/Kinzan Temple (金山寺味噌) miso

mugi (麦): barley
tsubu (粒): whole wheat/barley
aka (赤): red, made with rice koji and soybeans, medium flavor, most widely used in Japan
Hatchō (八丁): aged, strongest flavor, used mostly in Central Japan
shiro (白): rice, sweet white, fresh
shinshu (信州): rice, brown color
genmai (玄米): brown rice
awase (合わせ): layered, typically in supermarket
moromi (醪): chunky, healthy (kōji/yeast is unblended)
nanban (南蛮): chunky, sweet, for dipping sauce
inaka (田舎): farmstyle
taima (大麻): hemp seed
sobamugi (蕎麦): buckwheat
hadakamugi (裸麦): rye
meri (蘇鉄): made from cycad pulp, Buddhist temple diet
gokoku (五穀): “5 grains”: soy, wheat, barley, proso millet, and foxtail millet
Many regions have their own specific variation on the miso standard. For example, the soybeans used in Sendai miso are much more coarsely mashed than in normal soy miso.

Miso made with rice (including shinshu and shiro miso) is called kome (rice) miso (米味噌).

MISO-3
Miso sold in plastic container.

STORAGE AND PREPARATION

Miso typically comes as a paste in a sealed container, and should be kept refrigerated after opening. It can be eaten raw, and cooking changes its flavor and nutritional value; when used in miso soup, most cooks do not allow the miso to come to a full boil. Some people, especially those outside of Japan, go so far as to only add miso to preparations after they have cooled, to preserve the biological activity of the kōjikin/fermented yeast. Since miso and soy foods play a large role in the Japanese diet, there are a variety of cooked miso dishes as well.

MISO-7
Grilled miso seasoned rice balls and miso soup

MISO AS FOOD

Miso is a part of many Japanese-style meals. It most commonly appears as the main ingredient of miso soup, which is eaten daily by much of the Japanese population. The pairing of plain rice and miso soup is considered a fundamental unit of Japanese cuisine. This pairing is the basis of a traditional Japanese breakfast, although more and more Japanese in big towns eat European style as opposed to people living in the country.

MISO-9
Cucmber pickled in “gold miso”

Miso is used in many other types of soup and souplike dishes, including some kinds of ramen, udon, nabe, and imoni. Generally, such dishes have the title miso prepended to their name (for example, miso-udon), and have a heavier, earthier flavor and aroma compared to other Japanese soups that are not miso-based.

MISO-10
Fresh cucumber served with miso and sesame seeds

Many traditional confections use a sweet, thick miso glaze, such as mochidango. Miso glazed treats are strongly associated with Japanese festivals, although they are available year-round at supermarkets. The consistency of miso glaze ranges from thick and taffy-like to thin and drippy.

Soy miso is used to make a type of pickle called “misozuke” (味噌漬け). These pickles are typically made from cucumber, daikon, hakusai/Chinese cabbage, or eggplant/aubergine, and are sweeter and less salty than the standard Japanese salt pickle. Barley miso, or nukamiso (糠味噌), is used to make another type of pickle. Nukamiso is a fermented product, and considered a type of miso in Japanese culture and linguistics, but does not contain soy, and so is functionally quite different. Like soy miso, nukamiso is fermented using kōji mold.

Other foods with miso as an ingredient include:

dengaku (charcoal-grilled miso covered tofu)
yakimochi (charcoal-grilled miso covered mochi)
miso braised vegetables or mushrooms
marinades: fish or chicken can be marinated in miso and sake overnight to be grilled.
corn on the cob in Japan is usually coated with shiro miso, wrapped in foil and grilled.
sauces: sauces like misoyaki (a variant on teriyaki) are common.

NUTRITION AND HEALTH

The nutritional benefits of miso have been widely touted by commercial enterprises and home cooks alike. However, claims that miso is high in vitamin B12 have been contradicted in some studies. Part of the confusion may stem from the fact that some soy products are high in B vitamins (though not necessarily B12), and some, such as soy milk, may be fortified with vitamin B12. Some, especially proponents of healthy eating, suggest that miso can help treat radiation sickness, citing cases in Japan and Russia where people have been fed miso after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Also some experts suggest that miso is a source of Lactobacillus acidophilus or Lecithin which is a kind of phospholipid caused by fermentation is effective in the prevention of high blood pressure. Miso contains salt. A small amount is essential to animal life but most scientists believe an excess of it can cause a variety of health problems.

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2 thoughts on “Miso: The Basics”

  1. Great information as always – headed to Japantown to pick up some more miso – now I feel much more educated. By any chance have you written anything on seaweed? I’m dong a post on it and would love to reference you.

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