Miso – A Tasty Treat Meant to be Shared

Red Miso

 

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?

Chinese landscape

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).

Buddha temple

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.

Now Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming in Japan

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.

pick your flavor

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.

Some holdouts believe that the Japanese independently developed their own versions of fermented sauces that only coincidently resembled Chinese jiang and were also based on fish, shellfish, and meat. The earliest inhabitants of Japan were hunters and gatherers who learned to extract salt from sea water, and their earliest seasonings consisted of this natural salt, together with sansho pepper and ground shellfish. Prior to the Yayoi period (200 BC to AD 25), fish and meat sauces similar to jiang were separately developed, as attested to by pickling crocks excavated in the northeastern provinces and dating back 4,000 years. The Japanese word for these primordial seasonings was hishio (note its identical to the pronunciation of the Chinese character for  jiang when it entered the Japanese lexicon).

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

peaceful landscape

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:

  1. Shiromiso “white miso” – found in the Kansai region (Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe)
  2. Akamiso “red miso”
  3. Awasemiso “mixed miso”
  4. Akamiso, or dark brown, found in the eastern Kantō region that includes Tokyo
  5. 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.

Miso varieties

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

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.

White Miso

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

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

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 Uses

miso options

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
  • oden

miso options galore

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.

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35 comments for “Miso – A Tasty Treat Meant to be Shared

  1. August 7, 2010 at 4:47 PM

    A warm, cloudy bowl of miso soup is one of the most satisfying things on a cold winter evening. You cup your hands around the bowl, and bring it to your lips, which warms up your fingers nicely, too. I always have miso on my fridge. A must-have ingredient.

  2. August 7, 2010 at 5:17 PM

    You travel all over the place…yet I have never had the pleasure of meeting you! When will it be MY turn to meet the fabulous you? Sigh.

    I adore miso. Even more so than the Korean kind. I like that it’s milder, kind of a blend of sweet and savory, with enough umami factor to jazz up any kind of dish!

  3. August 7, 2010 at 7:19 PM

    Wonderful miso article. I am a big fan of miso, but was not well versed on the history and numerous incarnations. Not anymore!

  4. August 7, 2010 at 7:35 PM

    Carolyn is right on the nose for miso – the warmth and comfort it brings. But I am always indecisive in face of the miso variety around. Guess I should just stick to the classic huh?

  5. August 8, 2010 at 10:29 AM

    Not very well acquainted with miso I am afraid; but reading this post is helping fill up the huge gap in my knowledge and taste education!

  6. August 9, 2010 at 7:07 AM

    That’s quite a post! I love miso but had no idea about the history. I want a job title like soy nugget craftsperson. And I really appreciate all of the references to other blogs that you enjoy.

  7. August 9, 2010 at 7:36 AM

    It’s fascinating to learn more about miso and all the different kinds of it. Although I have used the miso, I’ve only used one kind so far (the white one), and I’m looking forward to exploring some more with this ingredient.

  8. August 9, 2010 at 1:28 PM

    I haven’t experimented much with miso. I’ve white and red. I need to branch out and taste and compare. Love the idea of miso mayonnais!

  9. admin
    August 9, 2010 at 1:36 PM

    Carolyn – You have just captured what I have loved about miso soup since that first incredible sip!

    Sophia – A terrible oversight, we need to correct this one fast. Hhmm, maybe we can do something when you’re back in CA, are you coming back to SF for the FoodBuzz festival?

    Lazaro – I cannot wait to see what you do with this incredibly versatile ingredient – something that will have me scrambling to the grocery store to recreate it fast I am sure.

    Tigerfish – I propose a miso taste comparison to understand all the nuances? Game?

    Taste of Beirut – My pleasure as I learn so much from you.

    Tammy – I know, the director of vinegars and such what incredible job descriptions.

    5 Star – Welcome back, glad you liked.

    Lisa – the more I use miso the more impressed I am with its versatility.

  10. August 9, 2010 at 1:39 PM

    Great post…I love miso, maybe because I grew up with lots of Japanese food around me…even on my salad 😉

  11. August 9, 2010 at 5:33 PM

    White miso is a staple in my fridge – most often used in soup and salad dressings – but I had to plead ignorance when it came to it’s history. Until now.

  12. August 9, 2010 at 7:56 PM

    I love miso. I make sure to have a little a small tub of it in my fridge. I’m trying to find diffent way to use it aside from the regular soup form.

  13. August 9, 2010 at 10:09 PM

    Blogging is a worldwide experience!! Miso is a wonderful tasty product that can spicy up every type of imaginable dish – I love it.
    Really I didn’t know in deep all about it. Excellent information :)

    Cheers,

    Gera

  14. August 10, 2010 at 12:32 PM

    I didn’t realize there were so many varieties! Having only had the white one I am obviously missing out. And how sweet of you to spread some blog love! Truly fate brought you together on the street that day.

  15. August 10, 2010 at 10:08 PM

    I had no idea that you were writing about this until just now! And guess what my post is this week? Miso! LOL.
    This is such a lovely post. Thank you LouAnn!
    I can’t wait for us to get together again!

  16. August 11, 2010 at 1:15 AM

    A beautiful and detailed post! Blogging is so great. One gets to meet many different and cool people. I really liked your post on Miso. That paste is so versatile and adds a delicious flavor to dishes.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  17. August 11, 2010 at 3:22 AM

    Very detailed and informative post!
    Love miso and have been experimenting to cook it with a variety of different foods. Recently, I used miso paste to cook with green beans. Its taste wonderful too.

  18. August 11, 2010 at 4:41 AM

    You are so kind! I feel incredibly honored to be among this list. Several of these bloggers I feel the same way about and others I feel I will soon. So glad to have some new reads!

    I enjoy each and every one of your posts because they are so informative. I learn so much from your blog. As with most of the Japanese food I’ve experienced, we started eating miso in Brazil. I had no idea there were so many different varieties!

    Thanks again for the kind mention. I have my sights set on making it back to SF next year so hopefully we can meet again soon.
    PS. Just want to clarify that I’m a nutritionist as opposed to a dietitian. I have degrees in the field, but not an RD. Just don’t want to misrepresent myself. :)

  19. August 11, 2010 at 1:05 PM

    Fantastic = this world of food blogging. It has brought a breath of fresh air to my life! And isn’t it wonderful that you got miso…from Japan! I recently tried it, first time in a roast chicken marinade with mirin – it was gorgeous!

  20. admin
    August 11, 2010 at 1:33 PM

    Juliana – I love miso more each day as I discover its versatility. Good stuff.

    Lynn – gotta start somewhere =)

    Jenn – The options are endless and I think you are the queen of creativity – I see no problems there.

    Gera – I love the fact that it is so global, its hugely exciting.

    Reeni – I could have had an endless list, but I always found the fun thing about those awards was being exposed to new bloggers and expanding my horizons, so I hope I did that.

    Kitchen M – I have been working on this post for a long time – you should have seen all the editing I did – who knew that there was so much copious information on miso. Your lovely gift offered me the focal point – look forward to hooking up soon too!

    Rosa – I agree, I’ve been touched by so many people, yourself included, beyond the folks that I mentioned, its just amazing how my world has expanded.

    Christine – The green beans sound delicious – I’ve been using a lot more fish sauce, hmm, wonder how they would all work together,

    Lori – I’ll make that correction right away. Look forward to catching up in person again soon!

    Kitchen B – Agree! I scored on that miso, I was very lucky! Your roast chicken dish sound amazing, I hope you posted.

  21. August 11, 2010 at 9:09 PM

    An informative post as usual, but also very sweet. You have shared really nice things about your blogging friends. It’s funny how we manage to connect through technology.

  22. August 12, 2010 at 6:26 AM

    What a great tribute to so many wonderful blogs. GREG

  23. August 13, 2010 at 9:38 AM

    I think this is one of the best secret ingredients out there. Just a touch can add a wonderful umami flavor.

    I feel lucky to have met you in person. Your curiosity and deep research inspires me.

  24. August 14, 2010 at 9:42 PM

    Asparagus with miso butter! Writing that has already made me salivate!
    You sure write a very informative and an interesting blog!

  25. August 15, 2010 at 1:36 AM

    I am so glad that I, among others inspire you with my recipes!! Thanks for the huge blog love!!

    Aaaaaah,…ooooooh,..I am so touched now & blushing too!

    That Miso ,..I have heard from it but never tried it. I will try it out & i know i can find it at my local asian market. thanks for all of the info & variaties too! I learned a lot as usual!

    Many kisses & cyber hugs from Brussels!

  26. August 15, 2010 at 9:05 PM

    I love miso and so happy to read your wonderful post, always filled with a generous amount of great info, I need to broaden my horizon and try others, great bloggers you mentioned, blogging has brought great joy to my life and I hope to meet many of my new friends someday…

    sweetlife

  27. admin
    August 16, 2010 at 8:43 AM

    Duo Dishes – Ah thanks!

    Sippity – Like the Energizer Bunny – I could have gone on and on.

    Christine – Ah thanks so much, I really enjoy exploring and am happy that others find it interesting too.

    Angie – You have to try the asparagus, you’ll never want to eat it any other way again.

    Sophie – You are an inspiration and I am so happy to have discovered you virtually.

    Sweetlife – Everyday I am more impressed at all the wonderful bloggers out there, and that only skims the surface.

  28. August 16, 2010 at 11:17 AM

    All right – after two years of staring at miso pastes in the store, i shall buy some today and bookmark the blog for reference. I love miso – but have only had it in restaurants – have never cooked with it. What am I waiting for? And such a lovely blog – an homage to the friends and knowledge this “hobby” brings.

  29. August 23, 2010 at 12:38 AM

    Wow, dear LouAnn, now this a biiiiiiigggggg article and I sincerely hope that a lot of people will refer to it and make it known as much as it deserves!
    Now about my name (LOL).
    Robert-Gilles is a single name as it contains an hyphen. The story behind it is pretty simple: I am the eldest child, and both my Mother and Father wanted to give me the name of their respective father, Robert and Gilles. Out of desperation my Mum checked the offical (at the time) list of the names accepted as French by the French State. And my name was there! Why? I don’t have a clue as it is a very rare name. Apparently I’m the only one single individual in the World called Robert-Gilles Martineau (nothing much to boast about, mind you!).
    As for my professional life, I’m self employed. I teach part-time at university. I teach in my own little school. I do quite a bit of translation and media work (some of it for the local government!). I just make my own schedule. I’m extremely passionate (oxymoron) about food, drinks, sports, music, fantasy and …
    I have a simple motto in life: Enjoy yourself while you can and help people do so. The more the merrier!
    Did I cover everything?
    Best regards,
    Robert-Gilles

  30. August 23, 2010 at 12:41 AM

    About miso, if you want to use it with sauces, which is a great idea, experiment with wasabi and mayonnaise. The Missus does it often as a dip with raw vegetable sticks.
    Cheers!

  31. admin
    August 23, 2010 at 10:46 AM

    Claudia – The miso will be your new go to ingredient in no time.

    Robert-Gilles – +) How funny, I too was named after my grandparents – Louis and Ann, with no hyphen. I too am the oldest – so much in common. I’ll also be teaching at a local university this fall for the first time and am very excited.

    The wasabi miso combo should definitely be explored.

  32. August 23, 2010 at 6:21 PM

    Dear LouAnn!
    Well, well, It is a small world, ain’t it?
    What are you going to teach?
    As for University, I teach French.
    As for the wasabi + miso, don’t forget to dilute it with mayonnaise.
    Many sushi restaurants also mix mayonnaise with wasabi!
    Cheers,
    Robert-Gilles

  33. admin
    August 24, 2010 at 2:26 PM

    Robert-Gilles – I’ll be teaching International Business and Strategy this fall at a local Business School. It was one of my favorite classes when I got my MBA, I loved the dialog, the exchange of ideas, so I am hoping to replicate that excitement with my class. Fingers crossed, I start in a week. =)

    I’m taking notes on the wasabi.

  34. August 24, 2010 at 7:03 PM

    Good on you!
    That certainly will keep you young and in touch with young people like it does for me here! No better way to stay young (there are others but I’m not supposed to mention them!LOL)
    Best regards,
    Robert-Gilles

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