A staple in every Japanese cook’s pantry, this highly nutritious, tasty and versatile ingredient brings a distinctive flavour to diverse dishes, from soups and stews to smoky marinades.
You may be well acquainted with miso soup, but did you know that miso has a long history? Made from fermented soybeans, miso was likely introduced to Japan around 600 AD, at the same time that Buddhism was introduced from China. While this early form of miso was made with whole soybeans, by the 1600s Buddhist monks had discovered the versatility of uses that came from grinding the beans into a paste consistency. Originally made mostly at home, today miso is produced in large quantities in factories that control for optimal mold-growing and fermentation conditions, which can last anywhere from a few days to many years, depending on the type of miso being made.
Today, miso takes the form of a fermented soybean paste most often made with koji (Aspergillus oryzae mold) and a grain such as rice, barley, wheat or rye (though seaweed can also be used in place of a grain). Making miso is generally a two- step process. First, the mold needs to be introduced and grown under controlled and regulated conditions in order to make the koji. Then, this starter culture of koji is combined with soybeans and a grain. Salt is added to stop the fermentation process once it is complete.
Not only is it very tasty, miso is high in protein as well as vitamins and minerals. There are many different types of miso that can be used in endless ways in the kitchen, from sauces to soups to dressings to marinades and glazes. Specific miso-heavy dishes include miso soup, miso-glazed eggplant and root vegetables, miso ramen, miso yaki onigiri, tonjiru, saba misoni, salad dressings, miso black cod and miso-glazed salmon. Miso is a Japanese cooking staple and really should make its way into the fridges of any cook’s kitchen.
Adding miso to a dish amps up the umami. Miso varies greatly in taste, depending on its type (red, white, yellow or hatcho) as well as where it is produced. Local culture, crops used, fermentation length, fermentation vessel, salt content and growing conditions all affect the flavour of miso. It can be sweet, salty, savoury, fruity or earthy, with variations in taste, aroma and colour. White miso, which ranges in colour from white to pale yellow, has the shortest fermentation time and is very popular all over Japan, but especially in the south. While white miso is fermented for two to eight weeks, the other types of miso (yellow, red, hatcho) have longer fermentation periods, usually upwards of two or three years. Northern areas of Japan generally favour the richer red miso, which contains more soy and less grain than the lighter miso varieties. Awase miso，or “mixed” miso, is also very popular in recipes—it comes in many different combinations as it is a mix of different miso varieties. By combining different tastes, an optimal balance of flavours can be created.
When cooking with miso, white and yellow miso can often be used interchangeably, at approximately the same ratio. If you open your fridge and find that you only have red miso available, be very careful to adjust the amount down as the taste is much stronger. And of course there is the ubiquitous miso soup, which is most often made with white miso. To make miso soup, always use dashi: fish stock combined with miso paste. You can fairly easily make your own dashi at home, using kombu and katsuobushi. Dashi powder or paste can be a quick and convenient alternative if you don’t have the time to make your own dashi from scratch.
The type of miso you have also determines its shelf life. White miso has the shortest lifespan—no more than eight or so weeks in the refrigerator—whereas the darker types of miso can last, refrigerated, for many months. When cooking with miso, add it to the dish near the end of the cooking process. This ensures that the miso does not get overcooked (you do not want to boil miso), which removes the beneficial nutrients contained within.
Types of miso
There are four main types of miso—red, white, yellow and hatcho miso. Each variety originates from a different region and each has its own unique taste, texture and colour.
White miso (shiro)
White miso is the mildest and most versatile type of miso. This sweet and very pale-yellow miso is made from fermented soybeans and rice, with the ratio of rice to soy-beans being higher than with any other type of miso.
Yellow miso (shinsu-miso)
Yellow miso, shinsu-miso, is often made from fermented soybeans and barley, and has a saltier taste compared to shiromiso. Shinsu-miso is fermented for a longer period of time than shiro miso and is perfect for soups, stews and marinades.
Red miso (aka)
Red miso, or aka, is the strongest and saltiest miso and ferments for one to three years. Aka is made from fermented soybeans and often rice or barley. It varies in colour between red and dark brown and has a pungent, strong taste.
Dishes That Use Delicious Miso
If you are not already cooking with miso, or are interested in creating new dishes using miso, read on!
Deep-fried, panko-crusted pork cutlet served atop white rice and covered in a thick and flavourful miso sauce? Yes, please! Miso katsu is a specialty from Nagoya and uses a dark-coloured (often hatcho) miso to deliver its umami taste. Other meats can be substituted in for the pork if you wish.
Hailing from Okazaki, located in the Nagoya region, hatcho miso is made using traditional techniques and is one of the most famous miso varieties in central Japan.
Hatcho miso is a red miso known as “the miso of emperors” and, unlike the other miso varieties, is made only with soybeans (no grains) and with Aspergillus hatcho mold. This prized miso is matured in authentic wooden tubs weighted down with over three tonnes of rocks! Hatcho miso is also one of the longest fermenting of the miso types: it takes two summers and two winters to fully mature. Hatcho has a higher protein content than other types of miso and is chunkier and more reddish-brown than miso made with rice.
Simmered mackerel in miso is a (very nutritious) traditional Japanese favourite. Sabameans mackerel in Japanese, and misoni means “cooked in a miso sauce.” Oily mackerel is one of the powerhouse fishes, chock full of omega-3s. Top it with ginger and shallots and you have a perfect, quick and healthy weeknight meal!
Miso nikomi udon
Miso nikomi udon, miso noodle soup, is a hearty and satisfying dish of thick wheat udon noodles simmered in a heavier miso broth and served with various ingredients such as egg, fried tofu, chicken, fish cake, shrimp and green onions. White, red or a mix of the two is the usual miso for this noodle dish.
Goheimochi is a simple dish of smashed rice (regular rice, not the sticky rice as the name would suggest) glazed with miso that is common in the more mountainous areas of Japan. The smashed rice is covered with a miso glaze and crushed nuts, grilled or broiled on flat wood skewers and often enjoyed with sake.
White miso is the perfect choice for this healthful and simple fish dish. Like mackerel, salmon is high in omega-3s and is a very heart-healthy fish. Most miso salmon dishes use miso, mirin and sake for the marinade. The balance of sweet and salty mixed with sake pairs beautifully with the delicate flavour of salmon.
Considered a winter dish in Japan, tonjiru is a hearty and nutritious pork and vegetable miso soup. The pork imparts a rich flavour and the oil keeps the soup hot, perfect for a cosy winter warm-up! Pork belly is a perfect cut for this soup, which is full of veggies such as carrots, daikon and taro.
Miso yaki onigiri
Grilled rice balls flavoured with miso make for a delicious snack, side dish or yummy late-night treat. These onigiri have a sweet flavour and are often sprinkled with seaweed and sesame seeds. Sometimes the insides are stuffed with other ingredients such as tuna. Miso yaki onigiri are often grilled over an open flame on a wired grate.
Popular miso ramen is rich and flavourful. Some ramen cooks recommend that the paste used should be Awase, or “mixed” miso, rather than white or red miso paste, and that only pork, seafood or vegetable broth be used (chicken and beef broth having too strong a flavour). White miso is also delightful when used for ramen.