With temperatures starting to dip, a soothing bowl of miso soup is truly a delight. Miso is also packed with nutrients, and is a staple food seasoning in Japan with over a thousand years of history!
What Is Miso?
So what exactly is miso? Miso is a fermented soybean paste, and its basic ingredients are a mixture of: soybeans, the fungus koji, salt, and grains (typically rice or barley). There are over 1,000 different miso producers in Japan, with wide regional differences in the type of miso being produced.
Making miso is also a relatively simple process, so some people make their own homemade miso as well. The color, flavor, and aroma of miso can vary drastically according to each miso maker’s preferences and techniques! Though miso is often salty and umami-rich, some lighter varieties of miso can also be sweet. Generally speaking, the darker the miso, the stronger and bolder the flavor.
Like many foods that have been around for more than a few centuries, the origins of miso are not entirely clear. One possible predecessor for miso may be a method of food preservation by fermentation called hishio, which originated from China and was introduced to Japan over 1300 years ago. Another theory is that miso is an entirely Japanese invention, developed by Buddhist monks in Japan around the 7th century.
Wherever and whenever miso was first invented, miso is now very much a uniquely Japanese food item with a long history of popular use in Japan that continues to this day. Soybean pastes exist in other cultures, such as Korean doenjang and Chinese soybean jiang, however they differ in key ways from miso in their composition, preparation and flavor.
How To Enjoy Miso!
The most well known way to enjoy miso is, of course, in miso soup. Miso soup’s umami rich yet subtle flavor pairs perfectly with many Japanese foods, especially with sushi. It is also a common breakfast in Japan!
Miso is also a popular base for ramen broth. Its uniquely salty and umami flavor makes it an excellent glaze or marinade for meats and fish. A touch of miso can be an excellent addition to tangy salad dressings. Lighter and sweeter varieties of miso can be a secret weapon in creating delicious and decadent sweets and desserts, such as miso butter, miso butterscotch, miso poundcake, snickerdoodles, ice cream, and so much more.
Not only does miso add uniquely delicious flavor and have a huge variety of culinary applications, it is a natural source of many nutrients and minerals as well as probiotics, which means it is great for gut health. It is however relatively high in sodium, so be sure to enjoy it in moderation. Miso is a cupboard staple in Japan and it’s easy to see why; once you’ve tried a couple dishes with miso, the unique and addictive taste keeps you coming back for more!