This Japanese soy bean paste makes both a quick-fix umami flavouring and complex base for delicate dishes. Clarissa Hyman helps you find your favourite variety
What is it?
Not so long ago, miso would have been an unknown quantity in many households, but it’s now as familiar as sushi. In fact, you could probably link the rise of both to the popularity of the conveyor-belt style of eating, Muji interiors and Manga mags.
Miso is a traditional Japanese seasoning paste made from soy beans mixed with cereals such as rice, barley, wheat or rye. These are cooked, mashed, salted and then fermented with the use of a special yeast-like mould. After the mixture is ground to a thick paste, it is left to mature for anything from a matter of months to several years.
Miso used to be ground daily at home with a huge pestle and mortar, but nowadays it is sold ready ground. Homemade miso was largely superseded by the industrially produced version in the 20th century which, according to The Oxford Companion of Food, led to a homogenisation of flavours, although there has latterly been a reversion to homemade among connoisseurs and advocates of localism. There is in fact a whole spectrum of miso types from the pale shiro miso to dark brown hatcho miso, with an extraordinary variety in between.
The soy bean plant from eastern Asia has been cultivated for thousands of years – it was mentioned in The Heavenly Farmer by Emperor Shen-Nung in 2838BC. Miso was first made in China, where it developed, along with soy sauce, from a common predecessor thought to have been a condiment prepared from meat, salt and wine and fermented with a starter culture made from grain. Soy beans later replaced the meat and the first Japanese written reference to miso dates from 701AD.
Although the beans were known in Europe from the 17th century, they were scarcely used and little appreciated. Frankly, no one wanted them, put off perhaps by their gelatinous texture, until the 20th century when scientific research revealed their great nutritive wealth. They also have an oiliness that prevents them marrying well with other flavours such as tomato sauce, and on their own they’re lacking in flavour when compared with their rivals, kidney or broad beans. However, soya beans have generated a whole range of other products, including miso.
When making the paste, the longer the process, the stronger, darker and more pungent the flavour, although the colour and texture can also depend on the ingredients used. Generally, pale (shiro or white) miso tends to be lighter and sweeter in flavour, almost caramelish. Aka (or red) miso has a richer, more savoury flavour that has been described as redolent of yeast extract and olives. The darkest of all, hatcho miso, is a pure bean miso, very thick, rich and strongly flavoured. All kinds are amazingly versatile and widely used in Japanese cooking, particularly for soups, dressings, pickles and sauces. It is also used as a glaze, and in marinades, stir-fries and stews.
A barley-based paste will be relatively thick and dark with a strong, salty flavour, good for seasoning rich soups, stews and sauces. The most commonly used rice-based miso is smooth and slightly runny with delicate, fruity and nutty flavours. Lighter white miso is also used widely in soups, stews and marinades. Wheat and soy miso is a medium-strength version with a good savoury, salty taste and is frequently used in vegetable and meat dishes – think of it as an alternative to stock cubes, added towards the end of the cooking period.
Miso is said to be a healthier substitute for salt as it contains mineral trace elements such as zinc, manganese and copper, as well as enzymes and vitamin B12. But do check the labels for salt levels and avoid and miso containing MSG.
Dilute wheat and soy miso with a little water to use as a dip alongside raw fish dishes or fried bean curd. Make a quick soup by adding to dashi (Japanese stock base), tofu, spring onions and mushrooms. Use a blend of mostly white miso and a spoonful of dark to thicken up sauces, or spread over grilled foods for instant seasoning. It also makes a delicious all-purpose dressing combined with soy sauce and orange juice. You can also blend it with soy sauce, sesame oil, honey and toasted sesame seeds for a quick noodle fix. Add to a pork stir-fry or to mayonnaise for tempura vegetables, or make a fabulous snack with miso-braised mushrooms on toast – which Matt Tebbutt serves with glazed scallops. Except for very light pastes, most varieties will keep, stored in the fridge, for a year or more, but they can also be frozen for an even longer life.
How to showcase it
Miso salmon brings a new look to an old faithful with the addition of a white miso, rice vinegar and grated ginger dressing; sticky miso and aubergine wedges are a perfect match; sesame miso chicken with a sweet and sour salad makes an easy supper; as do yakitori chicken skewers with miso; and miso-buttered cod gives the fish a rich and warming flavour.
Many restaurants have made good use of this simple ingredient: popular Japanese ramen restaurant Bone Daddies in Soho serves an outstanding spicy miso ramen with a rich pork broth and noodles, for example. If you want to copy the pros, try Ravinder Bhogal’s miso caramel banoffee eclairs filled with a umami-rich caramel filling or, less ambitiously, add a little to chewy chocolate cookies – good for an ingredient guessing game.
The umami boost that miso provides is a real boon for vegetarians and vegans. Miso chickpeas and avocado on taste adds an intriguing twist to a popular brunch dish, enlivened further with sesame seeds, lemon and spring onions.
There are similar products in Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia, and in China there’s a close relation known simply as bean paste. Japanese regions all have their own types and taste preferences: West Japan favours barley or sweet rice miso; Kyoto, white miso; and Central Japan, the pure soy bean hatcho miso. Throughout the country, miso soup is drunk directly from the bowl without using a spoon, with the solid ingredients eaten with chopsticks.
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