Miso

Miso [mee-soh] is a traditional Japanese seasoning produced by fermenting rice, barley and/or soybeans, with salt and the fungus kōjikin, the most typical miso being made with soy. 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 called ‘misoshiru,’ 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. There is a very wide variety of miso available. Different varieties of miso have been described as salty, sweet, earthy, fruity, and savory. The traditional Chinese analogue of miso is known as dòujiàng.

The earliest form of miso is known as ‘Hishio.’ Hishio is a kind of salty seasoning which is made from grain. The origin of the miso of Japan is not completely clear. Grain and fish misos had been manufactured in Japan since the Neolithic era (Jōmon period). These are called ‘Jōmon miso.’ This miso predecessor originated in China during the 3rd century BCE or earlier. It is likely that Hishio, and other fermented soy-based foods, were introduced to Japan at the same time as Buddhism in the 6th century. This fermented food was called ‘Shi.’

Until the Muromachi era, miso was made without grinding the soybeans, somewhat like natto (another fermented soy dish). In the Kamakura era (1185–1333), 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 using miso to flavor other foods. In medieval times, the word ‘Temaemiso,’ meaning home-made miso, appeared. Miso production is a relatively simple process and so home-made versions spread throughout Japan. Miso was used as military provisions during the Sengoku era and making miso was an important economic activity for daimyos of that era.

During the Edo period (1603–1868) miso was also called ‘hishio’ and ‘kuki’ and various type of miso that fit with each climate and culture was formed throughout Japan. These days miso is produced industrially in large quantities and traditional home-made miso has become a rarity. In recent years, many new types of miso have appeared. For example, there are ones with added soup stocks or calcium, or reduced salt for health, etc. The taste, aroma, texture, and appearance of miso all vary by region and season. Other important variables that contribute to the flavor of 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’; Akamiso, ‘red miso’; and Awasemiso, ‘mixed miso.’ In the eastern Kantō region that includes Tokyo, the darker brownish akamiso is popular, while the western Kansai region encompassing Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe prefer the lighter shiromiso.

The ingredients 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 chickpeas, 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.

Red miso is aged for a long time, sometimes more than one year. Therefore, due to the Maillard reaction, the color of this miso changes gradually from white to red or black. Characteristics of the flavor of this type of miso are saltiness, and some astringency with umami. It is often a much stronger-tasting miso. Factors in the depth of color are the formula of the soybeans themselves and the quantity of soybeans used. Generally, steamed soybeans are more deeply colored than boiled soybeans.

Miso typically comes as a paste in a sealed container requiring refrigeration after opening. Natural miso is a living food containing many beneficial microorganisms such as Tetragenococcus halophilus which can be killed by over-cooking. For this reason, it is recommended that the miso be added to soups or other foods being prepared just before they are removed from the heat. Using miso without any cooking may be even better. Outside of Japan, a popular practice is to only add miso to foods that have cooled in order to preserve kōjikin cultures in miso. Nonetheless miso and soy foods play a large role in the Japanese diet and many cooked miso dishes are popularly consumed.

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. 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 prefixed 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 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.’ These pickles are typically made from cucumber, daikon, hakusai (Chinese cabbage), or eggplant, and are sweeter and less salty than the standard Japanese salt pickle.

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