Magical Miso

This sweetly pungent fermented soybean paste is at the very heart of traditional Japanese cooking, and there is nothing like it in the Western world.

Miso, that elemental paste of fermented soybeans, was once made in most Japanese homes, both in the cities and in the countryside. Recipes and procedures were well-guarded family secrets, the process took months, and no two batches of miso would ever taste the same—due to varying proportions of salt to soybeans, the common (but not essential) addition of rice or barley, and the length of fermentation. Even the soil in which the soybeans were grown could make a difference. Miso, as a result, became a source of great family pride. “Temae miso desuga,” one would say—meaning “I don’t want to boast about my miso, but…”

Though my own family did not make miso at home, it was indispensable to us nonetheless, as it was (and still is) in all Japanese kitchens. Misoshiru, or miso soup, is served almost every day—either with rice and pickled vegetables as a complete (if frugal) meal, or on its own as the standard breakfast. I use miso as a base for all kinds of sauces and dressings, and like many people, I believe it to be essential when braising or grilling fish, especially strong-flavored mackerel. And I wouldn’t cook beef without it.

Like tofu (soybean curd), miso is high in protein. Unlike tofu, whose greatest selling point is its ability to soak up the flavor of whatever else it is cooked with, each kind of miso has its own rich, complex flavor and its own purpose—whether it be to enrich a broth or stock, to season a sauce or marinade, to work as a pickling agent or preservative, or to stand on its own, spread on vegetables or layered into casseroles. Miso is healthy and versatile and simple in composition, but its real magic comes from the fact that it has the ability to transform—even to elevate—other ingredients onto a different level altogether. That’s what puts miso at the heart of Japanese cuisine.

Unfortunately, miso can be confusing for anyone who hasn’t grown up with it. The problem is twofold: First of all, it has no Western counterpart, either in composition or versatility, so the average non-Japanese cook has no frame of reference for it. The second problem is that there are several types of miso—the three basic categories being komemiso, mugimiso, and mamemiso (rice, barley, and straight soybean miso, respectively), and each encompasses several different varieties.

Japan’s miso tradition began around the seventh century a.d. Miso seems to have evolved from both chiang, a soybean paste that Buddhist monks brought from China, and jang, a similar soybean product that Korean farmers introduced into Japan’s countryside. With the exception of a rustic farmhouse version, miso was made just for the nobility (and solely by monks) until the tenth century. Gradually, soybeans became more widely available, and the making of miso slowly spread to all levels of society. Though it had reached staple status throughout Japan by the 1300s, miso continued to be produced at home until the 18th century, when samurai families, once employed by now-disenfranchised feudal lords, founded the miso-making industry.

Today, much of the miso made in Japan comes from giant factories. According to Eddie Fujima, a consultant for Marubeni America Corporation in New York City—which exports American soybeans to Japan—some 50 of Japan’s 1,355 miso makers control 90 percent of the market. Most of these use soybeans imported either from the United States or from China. Miso connoisseurs, who are adept at detecting an inferior product, seek out small miso breweries—the kind that are painstakingly preserving old-fashioned techniques and regional miso styles.

Late last year, I took the train from Tokyo to Honj

Yamaki is a small brewery—its annual output is about 400 tons—and only one type of miso is made at a time. I turned up on the third day of akamiso (red miso, which in this case refers to a type of rice miso) production. On the first day, rice had been soaked, steamed, and then inoculated with _k

Next, we peeked into the hot, humid rice room, where eight inches of fuzzy kTemae miso desuga…”