So What is Miso?
Miso is a Japanese fermented soybean paste made with soybeans, rice or barley, salt, and water. An all-purpose seasoning with a rich, hearty, often meatlike flavor and aroma. Miso can be used (like a meat stock or bouillon) in the preparation of soups, sauces, gravies, dips, dressings, and many other foods, but more on that later.
How Its Made
Miso is made using a two-part fermentation. In the first part, steamed grains (typically rice or barley, but in some cases soybeans) are inoculated with the mold Aspergillus oryzae and incubated for about 48 hours to make koji, which serves as a source of enzymes. In the second part, the kōji is mixed with cooked soybeans, salt, water, and seed miso, packed into large vats, and fermented for between 6 to 18 months.
History of Miso
Like so many foods that are beloved around the world, the origins of it are as murky as a bowl of miso soup. Many experts point to China or Korea, but those food historians who are inclined to think that miso started in Japan offer up their own compelling facts.
From China with Love?
The earliest known ancestor of miso was a Chinese condiment known as jiang, specifically the soybean jiang (doujiang). I’ve covered jiang before; it is the basis of soy sauce, and considered the earliest condiment known to man, before the Chou dynasty (722 – 481 BC). The history of both miso and soybean jiang is interwoven with the history of soy sauce. The Chinese word for soy sauce, jiangyou, means “the liquid pressed from jiang.” Jiang was originally developed as a way to preserve protein-rich animal foods. Those clever ancestors also discovered that when seafoods and meat (and later soybeans) were salted or immersed in a brine, their protein was broken down by enzymes into amino acids, making food that much more tasty for humans. This process laid the foundation for the later development of miso, and enabled people long ago to break the vicious cycle of feast and famine, conserving foods from times of bounty to be enjoyed in times of scarcity.
The earliest versions of Chinese jiang were probably made with fish, shellfish, or game. Their flesh ground, pickled in salt and rice wine, and fermented in sealed earthenware for a few months. This jiang resembled contemporary Asian fish sauces, but it was different from modern miso (or shoyu) in that it contained no soybeans, grains, or kōji. Kōji did not appear until some time between the 10th to the 7th centuries BC, when it was added to pickled fish mixtures to accelerate fermentation. Soybeans and grains first appeared in jiang by the first century BC, and the various seafood miso popular in Japan are thought to be its direct descendants.
Even at this early date, it is remarkable that the Chinese were using the enzymes produced by the kōji molds (whose airborne spores naturally fell on the food, versus deliberate inoculation), to make fermented foods such as jiang. Rather than using a single jiang to season all foods, it was customized to ensure harmony, for example, mustard jiang should only be eaten with raw fish (i.e. sashimi).
During the T’ang dynasty (AD 618 to AD 906) jiang was referred to as the “ruler of foods” and in one well-known ceremony, a tray bearing all versions of jiang was placed on the palace altar, before which the emperor showed his respect by bowing in public. A special official guarded the imperial household’s supply as it fermented so that no one could steal the secrets of its production. In the The Old Book of T’ang , written by Liu Hsu, AD 887-946 stated that “In the department of the controller of pickles are 23 jiang craftsmen, 12 vinegar craftsmen, and 12 soy nugget (shih) craftsmen.”
But despite these precautions they still had trouble with quality control, as Tai T’ung of the Sung dynasty (960-1126) noted cynically, “… people let soybeans and wheat go yellow, throw in some salt and water, and consider it jiang.” How important was jiang to the culture? Around 1127-1217, in the Southern Sung dynasty, jiang was one of the “Seven Necessities” in China. The remaining six were firewood, rice (or grain), oil, salt, vinegar, and tea.
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For those historians who consider jiang the start of miso, they point to the Chinese character jiang which entered Japan, in AD 686, when it was pronounced hishio as proof. By AD 730 the character was pronounced as either hishio or misho. The present spelling of miso first appeared shortly after AD 886. Since miso has no Western equilvalent, it continues to be referred to by in European languages by its Japanese name, miso (le miso in French, and das miso in German).
Not enough information for you? This website goes into far greater depth.
Most theories I’ve encountered support the notion that miso originated either in China or Korea. Some determined the date of jiang’s arrival in Japan around the introduction of Buddhism (AD 540-552). The miso transmitted from Korea is thought to have been prepared using the miso-dama technique where cooked soybeans are mashed, shaped into balls, and inoculated with wild mold spores to form the kōji. Crushed and mixed with salt and water, the balls were then fermented in crocks to make soybean miso. This tradition, though largely undocumented, is the origin of much of Japan’s earliest farmhouse miso. While the jiang brought from China is believed to have first gained acceptance among the nobility and in monasteries. Not being a historian, I can’t help but wonder if Japan was hit by an onslaught of miso like products from both China and Korea and just accepted the happy consequences.
Today, the northeastern provinces are known as the “miso heartland” of Japan, with the nation’s highest per-capita consumption and the ancient homemade-miso tradition thrives. These facts, combined with the archaeological evidence indicating early mastery of salt-pickling and fermentation, move some scholars to go so far as to trace the origins of miso (and shoyu) to this part of Japan rather than to China or Korea.
Japan’s Gift of Happiness
According to Japanese mythology, miso is a gift to mankind from the gods to assure health, longevity and happiness.
The taste, aroma, texture, and appearance of miso vary by region and season. Other important variables that contribute to the flavor a particular miso include temperature, duration of fermentation, salt content, variety of kōji, and fermenting vessel.
The most common flavor categories of miso are:
- Shiromiso “white miso” – found in the Kansai region (Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe)
- Akamiso “red miso”
- Awasemiso “mixed miso”
- Akamiso, or dark brown, found in the eastern Kantō region that includes Tokyo
- Hatchomiso – is a version preferred in the Tokai area.
Ingredients used in miso may include any combination of soybeans, barley, rice, buckwheat, millet, rye, wheat, and hemp seed, to name a few. The wide variety of Japanese miso is difficult to classify, but is primarily determined by grain, color, taste, and background.
- mugi: barley
- tsubu: whole wheat/barley
- genmai: brown rice
- moromi: chunky, healthy (kōji is unblended)
- nanban: mixed with hot chili pepper for dipping sauce
- taima: hemp seed
- sobamugi: buckwheat
- hadakamugi: rye
- nari: made from cycad pulp, Buddhist temple diet
- gokoku: “5 grain”: soy, wheat, barley, proso millet, and foxtail millet
- Miso made with rice such as shinshu and shiro are called kome miso.
Many regions have their own variation of miso, for example, the soybeans used in Sendai miso are much more coarsely mashed than in normal soy miso.
There are many varieties of miso made from soybeans or cereals and a special kōji. Kōji is to miso, what malt is to beer. Kōji are grains (mainly rice, but also barley) or soybeans fermented with the Aspergillus oryzae molds. During the production of kōji this mold produces many enzymes which break down the proteins and carbohydrates. These misos are the most common:
Red miso is made from white rice, barley or soybeans by a natural fermentation, which takes about one to three years. The colour of red miso is red to brownish. Red miso contains the highest levels of protein of all types of miso. When rice is used as ingredient to make red miso, normally white rice is used. The brown rice fibers are difficult to penetrate by the koji mycelium and it more difficult to prevent bacterial contamination. Red miso is used for stir-fries, miso soups and stews or to make marinades for meat, poultry and vegetables.
The white colour is achieved from a greater concentration of rice koji (about 60%) and fewer soybeans. Of all miso varieties, the white miso contains the most carbohydrates and therefore tastes the sweetest, and ferments the fastes. It’s texture is very smooth. White miso is used to make light coloured soups, salad dressings and marinades for fish.
Barley miso is made from barley grains, soybeans and barley koji. Barley miso has a very dark colour and quite salty but very rich taste. Barley miso is naturally fermented from one up to three years. The longer the barley miso is fermented, the darker the colour and richer the flavour. Barley miso is used for seasoning rich soups, stews, beans, sauces and spreads.
Soybean miso is only made from soybean. Soybean miso has a low carbohydrate content due to its long fermentation period, at least one year. A special type of soybean miso is Hatcho miso. The kōji for Hatcho miso contains a special mold: Aspergillus hatcho instead of the usual Aspergillus oryzae. Hatcho miso is aged for at least 16 months, and considered the miso of Emperors. Hatcho miso is reddish-brown, somewhat chunky, and often used to flavour hearty soups.
Miso is a part of many Japanese-style meals. It most commonly appears as the main ingredient of miso soup.
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.
Many traditional confections use a sweet, thick miso glaze, such as mochidango. Miso glazed treats are strongly associated with Japanese festivals, although they can be found year-round at supermarkets.
Soy miso is used to make a type of pickle called “misozuke” which commonly include cucumber, daikon, hakusai, or eggplant, and are sweeter and less salty than the standard Japanese salt pickle.
Other foods with miso as an ingredient include:
- dengaku (sweetened miso used for grilling)
- 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.
On the back of that package of miso are some great serving suggestions:
- breaded pork cutlets
- steamed daikon
- grilled tofu (the firm or extra firm varieties)
- roasted eggplant
- veggie sticks
- stir fried vegetables
- grilled onigiri (rice balls)
- braised mackerelgrilled oyster with cheese
I recently steamed some asparagus and served it in a miso butter sauce (just miso and butter) and can I say it was incredible?
Some ideas for miso sauces – all used 3 T of miso as a starting point:
- vinegar miso – add 2 tsp rice wine vinegar
- sesame miso – add 1 T ground sesame (suri goma)
- ginger miso – add small amount of grated ginger
- miso mayonaise – 1 T Japanese mayonnaise
- kinome miso – 6 kinome leaves, grated (kinome/sanscho AKA young Szechuan peppercorn leaves)
- mustard vinegar miso – 2 tsp vinegar, and ½ tsp mustard
If some of these miso sauces sound like they’d be the basis for some good salad dressings, you’ be right. Miso is my go to secret ingredient for salad dressings, but shh, don’t tell anyone.