Miso-The greatest food Creation! January 2011

Miso has been firmly embraced as a side to sushi here in New Zealand and in talking with people it seems that they deem it a wonderfully healthy food that can be enjoyed only as long as it is in the presence of raw fish.
While we still have a long way to go here at home with Japanese food, I am finding that with the interest that is out there for Japanese cuisine more people are interested and seeking out different miso than the ready to go, just add hot water varieties.
Don't get me wrong, I adore the Japanese for their ability to simplify foods to make them easy for us to carry to work and I eat miso every morning for breakfast while I sit at my computer checking email. It gives me great energy for the day ahead and it seems that no matter the season I never get sick of it.

Miso is definitely a culinary staple for the Japanese. High in protein, rich in minerals and vitamins, miso is a bit of a wonder food and there are all manner of ways to enjoy it that extend a great deal further than soup. Those eating a macrobiotic diet will be more than familiar with its virtues but I hope that more people begin to add it to their everyday diet as a fantastic flavour enhancer.

Miso came to Japan from China where the fermentation of soy based foods was creating tasty pastes for adding huge flavour to otherwise rather bland things. Today I use those formats in my Chinese cooking and they provide immense flavour and they have a format that is most like miso called "chiang". The Koreans also have very similar formats that they use to do the same trick and the Vietnamese know it as "chao do". It is thought that some time around the 6th century fermented soy based products came to Japan via Buddhism and it was known at that time as 'shi'.
"Shi" for quite some time was eaten as whole fermented soy beans with great big intense musky flavours that could be enjoyed with simple dishes of rice and pickles to provide extra protein. It wasn't until later that someone came up with the idea to grind the beans and make a paste that could then be used for far more applications.
The name changed along the way as did the processes with which it was made to the point that today it would be very rare to find someone who makes their own miso paste at home anymore.
Mass produced miso is cheap and wonderful. There is no denying it. A simple food product, it appears everywhere and can be dependant on quality, a few dollars or many.
 
Made by fermenting the main ingredient with salt and a fungus called koji, the process is one that produces a wide range of flavours.
Soy is the main ingredient used to make miso but rice and barley are also common as well as buckwheat, millet, rye and wheat. All are prized for the different flavours they bring to the miso.
The koji itself is a by product of sake and shochu brewing as well as being used for soy production so it plays an extremely vital role in everyday Japanese life.
Fermentation itself can range from mere days to months and naturally the difference in flavour is great. With any fermented food the longer the process continues the bigger and heartier the result will be. The temperature as well as the length of fermentation, the salt content added, the variety of koji fungus and even the vessel that the miso is being produced in play a part in the end taste.
There are four main varieties that are easily identifiable due to their colour and are named for their appearance :
-shiro-white miso
-aka-red miso
-awase-mixed miso
-hatcho-dark brown miso.

Each region of Japan seems to have a favourite and in my favourite town, Kyoto, they are big on hatcho miso while in the big city of Tokyo, you will be served shiro miso.
Classification is done by grain type that the fermentation process has been done with rather than age or flavour. These aspects can vary so greatly so type is the easiest identifier as a shopper.
Besides the four colour groups above, you then can have miso created from:
-Mugi-soy beans and barley
-tsubu-whole wheat/barley
-hatcho-soy bean
-kome-soy bens and white rice
-soba-soy beans and buckwheat
-genmai-soy beans and brown rice
-natto-soy beans and ginger
-gokoku-soy bean with a five grain mix
-hadakamugi-soy beans and rye
-nanban-soy beans and chilli-this is used more as a dipping sauce 

Production of miso is revered and a miso producer has much the same profile in Japan as a wine maker or cheese maker on France. A highly skilled profession, most miso houses are run by the same families for many, many generations passing on their traditions to make the best miso they can for  the region.

As a living product, the koji provides natural flora in the gut much the same as yoghurt does. The Japanese prize miso for its natural goodness and it is very much considered a cornerstone of Japanese cuisine. Miso with rice for breakfast is very traditional.
Miso appears in soup as it is or with a number of accompaniments such as udon noodles, ramen noodles, big slow cooked hot pots called nabe and other slow cooked vegetable and meat dishes.  It is used to give flavour to grilled foods, marinades and sauces and is used to make a specific variety of pickle called misozuke.

As a natural living product, miso has a great deal of health benefits attached to it and this is important if you are looking at miso as an addition to your diet for those health purposes. The living culture can be killed off during production so look for unpasteurised formats of miso when you are buying i,t if you wish to be enjoying the flavour and health benefits. You will find those in the chilled section of a health food store or quality Japanese food store. Keep them well chilled to keep the bacteria alive and it is important that so as to not kill the bacteria that you do not over heat the miso at any stage. To make soup, bring the paste and water up to heat slowly and do not bring to a boil.
If you are looking to use miso as a flavour enhancer and still get the full health benefits look at some ways that you can introduce flavour through dipping sauces rather than cooking it.
I admit I use miso more for flavour than anything other reason but do enjoy the idea of added benefits and it appears on my table as a marinade with Japanese soy and a few other ingredients for chicken, beef and pork. It is fantastic used as a basting sauce for grilled meats and vegetables and also for tofu.
I use shiro and aka at home most regularly but do enjoy hatcho during the winter months for that bigger flavour when added to stews and slow cooked dishes. I like to mix different miso together to achieve different flavours.

Much has been written about the role it has played with cancer patients and those under going radiation therapy. It is suggested that miso can even delay the onset of cancers. Japanese woman who eat miso are found to have lower rates of breast cancers than non eaters in the same country. Those with lung disorders are said to be added with the daily consumption of miso to clear the passages. Miso is high in copper and manganese both of which are vital in creating antioxidants in the body and help with flexibility of blood vessels, bones and joints.
You can see why I enjoy a bowl every morning.

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