Monday, August 13, 2012


Nearly everyone who has been in a Japanese restaurant has ordered miso soup. But what are you getting? Chances are you can identify the cubes of tofu that sink to the bottom of the bowl. The tiny rings of green onion floating on the surface are an easy garnish to guess. But the muddy looking paste that is the actual miso? Where did that come from?

                                  Many kinds of miso, all start with the humble soybean

MISO PASTE is made from varying combinations of soybeans, rice, barley and/or other grains. The ingredients are mixed and fermented for anywhere from a few days to several years. "Koji" is added at the beginning and acts as the fermentation culture to start the miso making process. Thousands of different varieies of miso exist, and classifying them can be a challenge. Basically, they can be differentiated by colour and grain type.

                              Red (aka) miso on the left with white (shiro) miso to the right

AKA miso is red miso. A favourite in Tokyo and other areas of Eastern Japan it has a strong, salty flavour due in part to it's relatively long fermentation time. SHIRO miso is sweeter and milder than aka miso. Often called "white" miso, it's commonly used in Osaka and the Kansai area of Western Japan. No hard and fast rules apply regarding the types of miso and how they are used. Misos may be mixed, served in hot or cold preparations, and have a smooth or course texture.

            "Sano Miso" in Tokyo sells hundreds of different miso pastes from all over Japan

Some people make their own miso. It is not difficult, but takes patience and time for the miso to mature. Most Canadians buy prepared miso from their Japanese grocer. Sweeter, mild shiro (white) miso lends itself nicely to seafood marinades and preparations. Red meats stand up well to the strength and saltiness of red miso. Both can be used for miso soup. Other less known but delicious miso pastes include genmai miso made with brown rice. Mugi miso brings barley to the party, and tsubu miso uses whole wheat or barley. Hacho miso is made with almost 100% soybeans and has a rich, earthy flavour. It is almost black in colour.
      Hacho miso ages in 200 year old wooden vats according to a method from 1337

AWASE refers to the "special blend" of misos (usually red and white) that is particular to one family or region. "Awase" means "to adjust", and the proportions of awase miso are altered to suit the tastes and recipes where it is being used. Don't be shy! Try it at home...experimenting is part of the fun.

Miso is excellent for marinating just about anything. Vegetables and tofu served with miso are healthy, tasty meat free options. Japanese eggplant (the long, slender variety) is superb when grilled after a long rest in a miso marinade....
                                            Drooling over my keyboard even as I type...YUM.

MISO SOUP is miso paste mixed with DASHI (a Japanese stock). The soup is often garnished with fresh or deep fried tofu, green onion, spinach or seaweed and in some cases clams or shellfish. A staple in Japan, miso soup can show up at breakfast, lunch or dinner. Many instant varieties are available that do not require refrrigeration.

DASHI is a Japanese stock made from konbu (dried kelp), niboshi (small dried fish) and katsuboshii (shaved, dried tuna). Specialty dashi varieties are available that do not contain seafood (seaweed only and vegan) or ones that are flavoured with mushroom, fish etc. At Sanbiki, we use homemade dashi.

        Masato makes dashi with dried tuna, konbu (kelp) and niboshi (small dried fish)

DIY miso recipes are easy! For soup it is possible to buy DASHI MISO which has dashi stock mixed in with the miso. Just add hot water and garnish. Easy! We sell many kinds of miso at Mori Mori Grocery, but dashi miso is the favourite for fans of miso soup.

You can also buy powdered dashi, (or make it yourself) and then mix it with your preferred miso paste. Be careful not to boil the soup after adding the miso. It is said that boiling miso spoils the taste. High temperatures also kill off the microorganisms that help make miso such a healthy food. Some people add miso to sauces and foods after they have cooled believing this maximizes miso's health benefits.


Miso paste can be refrigerated after opening. It lasts a long time (months!) if it's kept covered in the fridge. Like some kinds of cheese, mould that forms on the surface can be scraped off and the product underneath remains usable.

Dashi miso is not usually used for marinating as it has a seafood stock already added. It is only used for miso soup.

Miso soup is not eaten with a spoon in Japan. It is entirely acceptable to drink from the bowl, using one's chopsticks to pick out any tasy solid tidbits in the soup.

Miso can be used by iteself (or combined with mayonaisse) for a deliciously different dip. Cucumber, carrots and other veggies work especially well!

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