What is Miso?
by Christian Elwell, Co-founder
Miso (pronounced mee-so) is one of the outstanding treasures of Japanese culture which has now spread from its native home to benefit all of humanity. Miso as we know it today is the result of over 2000 years of care and craft, developed within a world view which intuitively knew that food is our best medicine.
The deeper motive and spiritual impulse behind the continued development and production of miso in the modern west is bound up with the urgent question: How can our food become full of the healing forces necessary to support, and carry forth the true purpose of the human spirit? All quality food, all medicinal food, including fine quality miso, is prepared in loving, thoughtful response to this question.
According to Japanese mythology, miso itself is a gift to mankind from the gods to assure lasting health, longevity, and happiness.¹ Miso has no equivalent among Western foods. In the form of a wet paste with the consistency of a firm cottage cheese, miso is made through a unique double fermentation process developed through centuries of Japanese food craft. Cooked beans (usually soybeans) are mixed together with salt and with cultured or fermented grain, called koji (usually made from rice or barley). This mixture is then fermented in great wooden vats, in some cases for a few weeks and for as long as three years. Natural miso is always unpasteurized and, traditionally, has a distinct chunky texture.²
As a food, miso can be thought of as an all-purpose and delicious seasoning for flavoring soups and vegetable dishes, or for making salad dressings, sauces, and spreads. It is used in many of the same ways that we in the West would use salt. It is a condiment in the sense that only a few spoonfuls are used per person on a daily basis due to its salt content, which ranges from 4 to 12% by weight. At the same time, miso is such a concentrated source of high-quality protein and other nutrients that only a small amount is necessary to complement and enhance the nutrition of other foods, such as a whole grain or bean dish, for example.
There are many different types and varieties of miso, which come in a wide range of colors. The more traditional natural varieties come in warm, earthy colors ranging from tans and russets, through deep ambers and rusty reds, to rich chocolate browns and loamy blacks. Miso darkens with age, and some of the darker miso is aged in wooden vats for three years or even longer. Lighter miso, made with less salt, and aged for less time, comes in sunlight colors of yellow and creamy beige.
Each variety of miso has its own distinctive flavor and aroma. For darker miso, the flavor is savory, almost meat-like, and rich in protein. The lighter types are relatively sweet, more lively and refreshing to taste. To sensitive palates, no two varieties of miso taste the same; the range of colors, textures, and aromas is as varied as the ingredients used. In Japan different regions are known for their distinct varieties of miso, and there are shops, which sell as many different kinds of miso as you might find numerous varieties of cheese in a good food market here in the West.
Miso is prized by cooks for its almost unlimited versatility. In The Book of Miso, the most complete reference on the subject, there are over 400 recipes using miso in 15 different categories of traditional use. Miso can be used like bouillon or a rich meat stock in soups and stews; like ketchup, Worcestershire or soy sauce in sauces, dressings, and dips; like cheese in casseroles and spreads; like chutney or relish as a topping for grain dishes; as a gravy base with sautéed or steamed vegetables; as a marinade for fish, poultry, and red meats; as a starter for unyeasted bread making; as a pickling medium for vegetables.
In addition to all this, the greatest value of unpasteurized miso is due to the unique double, and lengthy fermentation process by which it is made. Fine quality, unpasteurized miso is a living fermented food containing a vast store of natural digestive enzymes, Lactobacillus, and other probiotic microorganisms, which aid in the digestion and assimilation of all foods. When you think of miso, you may think of it as a catalyst for the dynamic digestion of whatever foods we eat. Beside its delicious flavor, miso strengthens the dynamic power of digestion, which is at the root of our well being.
1. Michio Kushi, How to Cook with Miso (Tokyo: Japan Pub.,1978), pg. 27.
2. William Shurtleff, The Book of Miso, (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1983), pg. 33.