In North America, many people have a passing acquaintance with miso. Most don’t explore miso beyond slurping the soup that comes with their maki. But miso is much more than a precursor to a spicy tuna roll. In Japan, miso is a culinary staple with a history reaching back to the 6th century. There are countless kinds of miso that vary in colour, ingredients used and, of course, flavour. Miso is used in Japan as a spread, dip, and flavouring agent in everything from soups and sauces to desserts. To give miso its due, we’ve created a rundown of the need-to-knows and nice-to-knows associated with this historic ingredient. Welcome to Miso 101.
So, what is miso?
Miso is a seasoning paste that is made by fermenting soybeans with the fungus Aspergillus Oryzae and salt. Ingredients, such as rice, millet, rye or barely, are sometimes added to the mixture in order to alter the flavour profile of the miso. Fermentation times can be as short as five days or as long as several years. The length of the fermentation process impacts the flavour and colour of the finished miso.
Where did it come from?
As with most foods, the origin of miso is not entirely clear. It is believed that miso’s predecessor was developed in China during the 3rd century BCE. This was called hishio. It is likely that hishio made it’s way to Japan during the 6th century AD when Buddhism was introduced to the island. During the Heian period (8-12th century) miso was considered a delicacy and only monks and members of the nobility were permitted to eat it. Beginning in the 12th century an early form of miso soup became a staple in the diets of the Kamakura samurai. From there it was integrated into the diets of farmers as many of them began making their own miso at home. During the Warring States period (15th -16th century) miso was included in military rations as a means of supplying troops with a cheap, non-perishable source of protein. By the 17th century several varieties of miso emerged, each unique to its place of origin.
What are the varieties of miso?
The most common and widely available varieties of miso are shiromiso (white miso), and akamiso (red miso). Shiromiso is the most widely produced variety of miso. Its main ingredients are rice, barley and a minimal amount of soybeans. The more soybeans present in the miso the darker its colour.
The varieties of miso listed above are readily available in Canada, but in Japan there are infinitely more varieties of miso to choose from:
Kome Miso or rice miso ranges in colour from white to yellow to red. This form of miso is generally consumed in eastern Japan as well as the Hokuriku and Kinki areas.
Mugi Miso or barley miso is a white miso that hails from Kyushi, western Chugoku and Schikoku. A reddish mugi miso can be found in the northern Kanto region and is famous for it’s intense odor.
Mame Miso or soybean miso is characterized by its auburn hue and intense umami flavour. Mame miso is less sweet than other varieties of miso and requires a lengthy fermentation process. This type of miso is widely consumed in the Tokai region of Japan.
Chougou Miso or mixed miso is basically the Johnny Walker of miso. Chougou miso relies on a blend of other batches of miso to achieve the ideal flavour. This is generally done to compensate for the weaker points of each miso present in the blend.
How to use miso?
Miso is most commonly used to season ramen, udon, nabe and imoni soups. But miso is capable of a lot more than just mingling with dashi. Many Japanese confections are finished with a sticky miso-infused glaze. Miso is used to make sweet pickled vegetables called misoke. Miso is also used as a seasoning when braising or sautéing vegetables, and it is often added to marinades and sauces for meats and seafood. In recent years, countless miso-infused concoctions have emerged, such as miso-spiked mashed potatoes or miso compound butter. The possibilities are endless so think beyond the beloved sushi restaurant starter and get creative with this historic ingredient.
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