Miso (味噌) is a thick paste made by fermenting soybeans with kōji ((麹) (Aspergillus oryzae )) and sea salt. Often grains and sometimes other ingredients are added. It tastes salty and, depending on the type of grain used as well as fermentation time, more or less sweet.
Main Types of Miso
The grains used include any mix of barley, millet, rice, rye, and wheat among others. Lately, producers in other countries have also started selling miso made from amaranth, hemp seed, and quinoa. Fermentation time ranges from as little as 5 days to many years. The wide variety of japanese miso is difficult to classify but is commonly done by grain type, color, taste and region.
- mugi (麦) - barley
- tsubu (粒) - whole wheat/barley
- aka (赤) - red, medium flavor, most commonly used
- hatchō (八丁) - aged (or smoked), strongest flavor
- shiro (白) - sweet white, fresh
- genmai (玄米) - brown rice
- awase (合わせ) - layered, typically in supermarket
- moromi (醪) - chunky, healthy (kōji is unblended)
- nanban (南蛮) - chunky, sweet, for dipping sauce
- inaka (田舎) - farmstyle
- taima (大麻) - hemp seed
- sobamugi (蕎麦) - buckwheat
- hadakamugi (裸麦) - rye
- tōbanjan (登板醤) - spicy, japanese style korean jigae
- meri (蘇鉄) - made from cycad pulp, buddhist temple diet
- gokoku (五穀) - "5 grain": soy, wheat, barley, broomcorn, and foxtail millet
Much like yoghurt, miso contains live bacteria of a highly benefical nature, including vitamin B12, and can be used to repopulate a person's intestine with beneficial bacteria after taking antibiotics. In fact, Japan and Russia have both used miso to help people overcome radiation sickness. Most notably Chernobyl, and WWII Japan.
History of Miso
In the days of the shogun oftentimes seiges of village keeps would last many months, to even years. Many times the attacking clan would not attack, they would prevent anybody from going in or out. This was a technique to starve the samurai and peasants to force surrender. Then in some particularly long seige someone noticed a horse eating the fermented beans out of a barrel. They thought, if its good enough for the horse, its good enough for us, the village surmounted the seige, and thus miso was born.
A researcher from the Edo period claimed that Miso originally came from ancient China. At the time, miso was also called hishio and kuki.
Depending on the dialect, a character used for hishio is horse.
Until the Muromachi era, miso was made without grinding the soybeans, somewhat like natto. In the Kamakura era, a common meal was made up of a bowl of rice, dried fish, a serving of miso, and a fresh vegetable. In the Muromachi era, Buddhist monks realized that soybeans could be ground into a paste, spawning new cooking methods where miso was used to flavor other foods.
Miso is eaten as miso shiro ((味噌汁) - miso soup) for most every meal.
Before miso is added to food it is always mixed with a little water or broth and left to stand for a time to activate the enzymes; akin to proofing yeast.
Due to the high nutritional content miso should never be cooked for more than a few minutes and never above a simmer. Some people go so far as to always add it to the prepararion after it has cooled to eating temperature. Since miso and soy foods play a large role in their diet there exists a variety of cooked miso dishes as well.
- dengaku (charcoal-grilled miso covered tofu)
- yaki-mochi (charcoal-grilled miso covered mochi)
- miso braised vegetables or mushrooms
Fish will also be marinated in miso and sake overnight to be grilled.
However, these vegetable and fish dishes bear NO resemblance to the term nukamiso (miso is not used in nukamiso or pickles).
The standard way of eating corn on the cob is to coat the ear with shiro miso, wrap with foil and grill, in fact it tastes very much like "buttered & salted" when done. The beauty of miso is that as long as you always keep the batch clean and out of humidity it virtually never spoils and is always nutritious. One pint taken on a backpacking trip will last you weeks of healthy meals.