Miso (味噌) is one of the fundamental ingredients in Japanese cuisine. From miso soup, stir fry seasoning, salad dressing, hot pot and ramen soup bases, and more, the Japanese consume miso almost every day in some form. The condiment comes in a wide range of earthy colors from black, brown, rusty red and yellow, as well as textures, salt content, and regions. If you check the refrigerator of a Japanese household, you’ll probably find one or two (or more!) varieties of miso.
So what’s the deal about that funky brown paste? Let’s dig in!
What is miso?
Miso is fermented soybean paste. It’s made by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji (麹, Aspergillus oryzae, the fungus that is also used to make Japanese rice wine 日本酒, distilled alcohol 焼酎, and rice vinegar 米酢). Traditionally, the fermentation takes place in large cedar-wood kegs.
Besides soybeans, other beans and grains can be used such as wheat, barley, millet and red beans. Some miso producers have experimented with non-traditional ingredients such as edamame, chickpeas, quinoa, and other beans and grains.
The fermentation process can last from six months to several years. If left in a cool environment, miso will continue to ferment, resulting in a deep and mellow flavor. Most Japanese consumers rely on store-bought but you can also make it at home, with just a few ingredients and a lot of patience!
What are the different varieties of miso?
You may have seen the miso aisle at the supermarket and was baffled by the different options. Why so many varieties and what are the differences?
Miso can be categorized by the ingredients, color, and regions. Depending on where you are in Japan, you may encounter the following varieties of miso.
Rice Miso (Kome Miso 米味噌)
This is the basic miso, which is widely available across Japan. It is made from soybeans, salt, and rice koji (米麹). The color is brown.
Barley Miso (Mugi Miso 麦味噌)
This miso is made of soybeans, salt, and barley koji (麦麹). It has a dark brown color with a characteristic salty and rich flavor. Barley miso is mostly consumed in Kyushu, Shikoku, and Chugoku regions (southern Japan).
Soybean Miso (Mame Miso 豆味噌)
Soybean miso is made from soybean, salt, and soybean koji (豆麹). This miso is mostly consumed in Aichi, Mie, and Gifu prefectures (central Japan). The most famous soybean miso is Hatcho Miso (八丁味噌). Hatcho miso is characteristically black-brown color, has a distinctive soybean flavor and slightly sweet aroma.
Mixed Miso (Chōgō Miso 調合味噌)
Mixed miso is a combination of any of the above, which results in a mild miso flavor.
How do the Japanese eat miso?
The most common method of consuming miso is miso soup (味噌汁), a hot and nourishing soup that many Japanese people call comfort food. Miso soup just requires 3 components and is very simple to make once you understand how to build it.
First, you need to make dashi (出汁). Dashi is an umami-rich stock made of bonito flakes (鰹節), dried anchovies (いりこ), kombu kelp (昆布), dried shiitake mushrooms (椎茸), or a combination. You prepare it by steeping the ingredients in water.
Once the dashi is done, pour it into a pot and add whatever ingredients you prefer. Bring the pot to a boil, then turn off the heat and dissolve the miso. Reheat the pot on low heat and avoid letting it boil. Pour the final product into a bowl, serve with rice, and your meal is complete!
Besides miso soup, you can use it as a flavor boost in stir fries, whip up an all-purpose sauce, use it as a marinade for protein, and even in desserts! Feel free to think outside the box and use miso in non-Japanese cooking as well! Suggestions include a spoonful of miso in tomato or meat sauce, creamy soups, or in glazes. It can add a boost of umami to your dish without raising the salt content.
What’s your favorite type of miso and how do you cook with it? What’s your favorite ingredient in miso soup?