Many scholars theorize that miso developed from earlier fermented foods introduced into Japan from China along with the arrival of Buddhism in the 6th Century AD. Others trace the origins of miso to the northeastern provinces of Japan itself where archeological evidence indicates the early mastery of fermentation processes. According to Japanese mythology, miso is a gift to mankind from the gods to assure lasting health, longevity, and happiness. (1)
The written word, miso, first appeared around 800 AD. Among the royalty it was sometimes called "…higurashi, meaning ‘a clear-toned summer cicada’ whose song is said to be able to penetrate even the hardest stone. Likewise, the rich fragrance and fine flavor of miso were known to penetrate and season other foods. For this reason, in the Kyoto area miso is still occasionally called mushi or bamushi meaning ‘insect or honorable insect’." (2)
(1) Michio Kushi in How to Cook with Miso (Tokyo: Japan Pub.,1978), pg. 27.
(2) Shurtleff, William & Aoyagi, Akiko. The Book of Miso (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1983), pg. 221.
Miso (pronounced mee-so) is a delicious all purpose, high-protein seasoning which has played a major role in Japanese culture and cuisine for centuries. It is most often made from a combination of soybeans, cultured grain, and sea salt by a unique fermentation process, which was elevated to a state of fine craftsmanship in traditional Japan.
Miso is best known as a seasoning for soup; it is used for flavoring a wide variety of other dishes as well (see recipes). Today miso is gaining popularity as a healthful ingredient in many kitchens where awareness is growing that natural food itself can be our best medicine.
Miso offers a nutritious balance of natural carbohydrates, essential oils, minerals, vitamins, and protein of the highest quality, containing all of the essential amino acids.
Unpasteurized miso is a "living food" containing natural digestive enzymes, Lactobacillus, and other microorganisms which aid in the digestion of all foods, and which have been shown to ward off and destroy harmful microorganisms, thereby creating a healthy digestive system.
In traditional Japan, miso gained a special place in the minds and hearts of generations who came to rely on miso soup as an essential part of their daily life. In Physical Constitution and Food, Dr. Shinichiro Akizuki, director of St. Francis Hospital, Nagasaki, writes:
I have found that, with very few exceptions, families, which make a practice of serving miso soup daily, are almost never sick.... I believe that miso belongs to the highest class of medicines, those which help prevent disease and strengthen the body through continued usage...Some people speak of miso as a condiment, but miso brings out the flavor and nutritional value in all foods and helps the body to digest and assimilate whatever we eat....
-The Book of Miso, page 25.