Gourmet Secrets: Mad about miso

A look at why miso can easily be called the flavour of Japan
Miso is widely believed to be derived from an ancient salt preserve called kooky bishio(Shutterstock)
Miso is widely believed to be derived from an ancient salt preserve called kooky bishio(Shutterstock)
Updated on Jan 10, 2019 01:05 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByKaren Anand

Miso has become the new star ingredient ever since Nobu Matsuhisa started using it in his famous black cod recipe in all his restaurants around the world. Apart from its health benefits, it also has an umami flavour which is the fifth sense and adds an enormous amount of flavour to anything it comes near. Traditionally, the Japanese used miso in soups, with tofu and with both slightly seared fish and sashimi. As a fermented food, miso also has beneficial bacteria which is probably the reason why it is so prevalent in traditional Japanese fish recipes. Nobu’s recipe uses a traditional mix of sake, mirin, sugar and white miso, which are heated together and then used as a marinade on black cod for four days before grilling.

All the goodness

Miso means ‘fermented beans’ in Japanese. In Japan, people begin their day with a bowl of miso soup, believed to stimulate digestion and energise the body. A traditional ingredient in Japanese and Chinese diets, miso paste is made from fermented soybeans and grains and contains millions of beneficial bacteria. There are hundreds of different types of miso and different versions are linked with regional cuisines, identities and flavours. Miso is rich in essential minerals and a good source of various B vitamins, vitamins E, K and folic acid.

Miso and soy sauce are the two most important seasoning ingredients in Japanese cuisine – they could be called the flavours of Japan – and they share the same origin, although miso is the older of the two. Despite the Japanese way of life becoming more Western over the last 150 years, boiled rice, a small dish of pickles and a bowl of miso soup remains the archetypal Japanese meal. Millions of Japanese people still begin the day with miso soup.

Miso is widely believed to be derived from an ancient salt preserve called kooky bishio, a fermented mixture of salt and grains such as rice, soya beans and wheat. The technique for making miso probably came over from China at the same time as Buddhism; certainly by the eighth century miso was being made inside temple grounds and by farmers. Miso was an important field supply for warring samurai during the 150 year long civil war, which finally came to an end in the early 17th century.

Until recently, one would see straw ropes of miso-dama (miso balls) hanging under the eaves of rural farm houses. Soya beans would be cooked, crushed and made into balls the size of ostrich eggs, then tied with straw ropes and hung up to grow a natural mould. The mouldy balls would then be mixed with salt and water to make miso paste. Miso balls are a rare sight in Japan today.

The colour of miso ranges from light cream to almost black, taking in the golden brown of peanut butter and dark brown on the way. In general, the lighter the colour, the less salty the miso. All miso has a distinctive fermented bean flavour and aroma.

Millions of Japanese people still begin the day with miso soup (Shutterstock)
Millions of Japanese people still begin the day with miso soup (Shutterstock)

Variety meets versatility

There are four basic varieties of miso. The most popular variety, kome miso (rice miso), accounts for about 80 per cent of total domestic production. It is made from boiled, crushed soya beans mixed with a culture called koji, made from rice. Salt is added and the mouldy mixture is left to mature for six months to three years. Mugi miso is made with soya beans, wheat or barley, koji and salt and is sometimes called inaka miso, meaning country miso, as it is the variety often made by farmers in the countryside.

Miso is a very versatile seasoning ingredient. It can simple be dissolved with dashi stock to make soup or used in many simmering dishes and regional hot-pots. The light coloured shiro miso (white miso) is sometimes called saikyo miso. A regional speciality of Kyoto it makes an excellent marinade for tofu, fish and meat. Dengaku miso, good for coating grilled tofu is a delicious mixture of miso and a variety of seasonal ingredients. Miso is also used to make dressings.

I recently had a most delicious dish of pomfret with miso chilli at the newly opened Asia Kitchen in Pune. It’s a large contemporary space with an open kitchen and some punchy flavours and recipes. Chef Ram at the helm of this chain has created the vibrant new menu which incorporates a variety of innovative sushi, a lip-smacking lotus root with black pepper and curry leaf, Dim Sum, Tom Yum, Baos and familiar main courses. The steamed pomfret with miso chilli has no doubt been inspired by Nobu and after him the many other chefs who now do a version of his black cod with miso. This one adds a punch with a touch of roasted chilli paste atop our favourite Indian fish, the pomfret. The marriage works. Try it!

Steamed Pomfret with Japanese Miso Chilli Sauce

Steamed Pomfret with Japanese Miso Chilli Sauce at Asia Kitchen, Pune
Steamed Pomfret with Japanese Miso Chilli Sauce at Asia Kitchen, Pune

1 medium sized pomfret
3/4 tbsp white miso
2 tbsp mirin
1 tsp chopped garlic
2 tbsp scallion

Clean the pomfret and make three slits on each side and marinate with all the above ingredients at least for 12 hrs. Steam the marinated pomfret for four minutes.

Japanese Miso Chilli Sauce
2 tbsp oil
1 tbsp chopped garlic
1 tbsp roasted chilli paste
½ tbsp oyster sauce
Chopped fresh chilli as per taste
1 ladle stock
1 tbsp vinegar

Make sauce with all the above ingredients, slightly thicken with corn flour and pour over the steamed fish.

Culinary expert and explorer Karen Anand has been writing extensively on the subject of food and wine for 30 years. Apart from having her own brand of gourmet food products, she has anchored top rated TV shows, run a successful chain of food stores, founded the hugely successful Farmers Markets, and worked as restaurant consultant for international projects, among other things. Her latest passion is food tours, a totally curated experience which Karen herself accompanies, the first of which was to Italy.

From HT Brunch, January 6, 2019

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