Meet the Marvelous Miso

Learn about the protein-packed Asian staple miso and its numerous uses and variations.

Photo by Christopher Shockey

What’s salty, earthy, a little funky, a little tangy, and can serve as the secret sauce in delicious dishes? It’s miso! Miso is an umami-rich, fermented, bean-based paste made with legumes (most often soybeans), rice or barley koji, salt, and time.

This quintessential Japanese seasoning and soup base is also a nutritional powerhouse that comes in many forms, based on how long it ferments, how much salt is used, and the bean-to-koji ratio. Such choices, made by the miso-maker, produce a rainbow of earth-toned, savory pastes with remarkably different flavor profiles. Japanese miso is actually an illustrious member of a much wider group of fermented bean pastes from all over Asia. As such, fermented bean pastes are an essential source of flavor and nutrition throughout East Asia. A few examples are doenjang from Korea, pon ye gyi from Myanmar, tu’o’ng from Vietnam, tao jiew from Thailand, tauco from Indonesia, and the Chinese jiangs, from which it’s believed miso and other pastes descend. These legume pastes play a vital role in the kitchen and in the health of the people who use and eat them. They’re both simple and complex.

Bean pastes are a wonderful cooperation of fungi — both molds and yeasts — and bacteria that together create a fascinating, rich, complex food that’s flavorful and wildly nutritious. More than condiments, these pastes are a concentrated, inexpensive, shelf-stable source of protein that play a significant role in the diets of many people.

Transforming Palates

Bean pastes are ancient foods. They’re made using a wide range of techniques that grew out of the different regions from which they hail. It’s generally agreed that the predecessor to all of these pastes, hailing from China, was jiang (chiang), which first came into existence about 2,500 years ago, give or take. In China today, jiang denotes hundreds of fermented products.

Recipes migrate with people, and so did jiang. It’s said that a Chinese Buddhist priest who came to Japan in the seventh century to promote Buddhism brought jiang along with him. There, it came to be called shi.



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