Meet the Marvelous Miso

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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.

Still, the creation story of miso isn’t entirely clear. Since Neolithic times, peoples of East Asia have made fermented grains and fish, known now as jomon miso. But this dish didn’t necessarily become the forerunner of the miso we know today. In Japan prior to the eighth century, it’s likely that miso was only made by Buddhist priests in their temples and consumed by the elite of the country. At the beginning of the eighth century, the emperor of Japan established a bureau to regulate the production, trade, and taxation of miso. More than a century later, miso had made it out of the temples and capital city and into the rest of the country, where, over the following centuries, it would become popular with the common people.

And, really, miso and other bean pastes are the people’s food. Legumes and whole grains are the foodstuffs of the poor, and, if we’re being honest here, these foods suffer a bit of an unfortunate reputation because of their lowly place on the human food chain. However, as science begins to understand the workings of our digestive system — and more specifically our gut and the microbes that drive the engine of our well-being — we’re discovering that these kernels and seeds are the key to good health. As one arm of science looks to “invent” ideal chemical combinations of superfoods, another arm shows us that what we need are foods with microbes and fiber. It’s as simple as that: whole, unprocessed fiber, of which legumes and whole grains have plenty. Yet, we also know many of these grains and beans have anti-nutrients as well. Throughout the world, our ancestral cultures used the power of microbes and fermentation to not only preserve food, but also to rid them of anti-nutrients and make them more digestible, more nutritious, and tastier. And if you’ve ever eaten a boiled soybean, you’ll likely agree that tastier is important.

Fermented legumes and grains have high levels of several bioactive compounds. How they interact with our individual diets, microbiome composition, and inherited genes is intricate and not easily reduced to simple “if you eat this, it will cure that” formulas. Still, mounting evidence from dozens of studies shows the consumption of fermented legumes is a contributing factor in the reduction of obesity, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, lower cholesterol levels, improved calcium uptake in postmenopausal women, reduced cancer risk, improved glucose control, and reduced insulin resistance in pre-diabetic and diabetic populations. Miso, doenjang, and other fermented beans keep proving their importance in a healthy diet.

Nutritious and Delicious

Impressive as these health benefits are, they’re not what’s driving the resurgence. What is driving the interest and the creativity is the flavor and the magic of creating unimaginable deliciousness with the microbes and methods. Miso, here and now in Europe and the Americas, is experiencing nothing short of a culinary renaissance. Traditional Japanese-style misos are moving beyond the hole-in-the-wall natural foods co-op of the ‘70s and the huge natural markets of today and finding themselves on menus throughout the world. They’re showing up in dishes that are decidedly not Japanese in mood or flavor. At the same time, chefs and fermentation enthusiasts are deconstructing the miso method and applying it to whatever base their imagination leads them to. Sometimes, it’s untraditional legumes and grains, and other times, it might be ingredients completely out of left field, such as chocolate chip cookie dough miso. This method relies on koji, the Japanese word for the culinary mold Aspergillus oryzae, a filamentous fungus that’s been coevolving with humans over many millennia. Koji is a primary fermentation that creates a whole host of potent enzymes that unlock a landscape of flavors. (Learn more about the fascinating fungus in “Koji in the Kitchen.”)

Understanding how the microbes alter the foods at their molecular level is the first step to appreciating what these microbes have to offer. Fermentation breaks down the big molecules of proteins, starches, and fats. We care about this because these big molecules don’t have much flavor, but the smaller ones do. When we add a koji-fermented grain to legumes, in the case of a more traditional miso, we begin a second fermentation. The enzymes then get to work breaking apart the molecules, which makes them available for a whole team of microbes — lactic acid bacteria, yeast, and the Bacillus family of bacteria — all working together, or at least tolerating each other, to produce a variety of flavors.

To understand and appreciate miso, begin with your eyes. The miso color wheel is an unpretentious collection of earthy tones, beginning with a white miso that’s the same light yellow of cream from a grass-fed cow. This miso is lower in salt, has a high ratio of sweet rice koji to soybeans, and is young, less influenced by the action of the microbes over time. It’s like a young aged cheese: sweeter and more creamy than sharp. As misos become saltier, beanier, and spend more time maturing, the colors move to ever intensifying yellows and tans; then to light browns, rusts, and reds; and finally to an opulent deep chocolatey brown. In traditional misos, darkening is a good indication of aging time. The darker the miso, the longer it’s aged, resulting in more microbe activity and nuanced flavors.

Find Your Flavor

Miso isn’t typically eaten straight, but it can be fun to taste and compare. If you intend to try more than one, start with the lighter colors and work your way toward the darker colors. To taste, put a small dab of miso (a little goes a long way) in your mouth. You’ll first notice the rich, funky aromas. Note where it fires up your taste buds; different misos will land in different areas of your tongue and communicate to your brain. You’ll find some to be a blend of sweet and salty, and some a mellow funk. Others will come in tangy, and the older misos will often express all these qualities, along with deep earthiness and more. Now, imagine taking these flavors with you into your kitchen — to make salad dressings, mix with nut butter or mayonnaise for a spread, marinate vegetables, put in sauces or stews, and, yes, to make soup.

The best way to experience miso is to make your own. Follow this recipe for Easy-Peasy Chickpea Miso to make a delicious, simple, all-purpose fermented creation.

Makers of Miso

Photo by Christopher Shockey

South River Miso South River Miso is made in the old farmhouse style of Japan. It’s an entirely handmade process that’s now run by 12 employees. In 1981, Christian and Gaella Elwell broke ground along the South River in Conway, Massachusetts, on the timber frame building that’s still their production facility today. The heart of the building is a wood-fi red masonry stove with a stainless-steel kettle built into the bricks. In this vessel, the grains for koji are steamed, and the beans are soaked and slowly cooked for 20 hours. The Elwells believe that this slow wood heat brings out the best flavor in the beans.

If the fire is the heart, then the nearby koji room is the soul. Steamed grains (usually brown rice or barley) are inoculated, mounded overnight, and then scooped into American cypress trays that are tucked into the koji room. Over the next few days in this dark space, the mold metabolizes, growing a beautiful white fuzz and creating a host of enzymes. On the third morning, it’s ready. The koji is then salted and ready to meet the slow-cooked beans. “It’s a marriage,” Christian says, “as these two ingredients will never be the same again.”

White Rose Miso

If South River Miso embodies the “first” wave of miso discovery in this country, then White Rose Miso exemplifies today’s interest. Sarah Conezio and Isaiah Billington, former pastry chefs, are passionate about sourcing local ingredients and using microbes to transform them into powerful flavor.

They describe their flavors as their attempts at re-creating what’s worked before, but within the constraint that every input is purchased from a responsible mid-Atlantic farmer. Given that rice is rarely available and often expensive, the traditional definition of miso had to change. Koji is the first step of many traditional ferments, and Conezio and Billington look at what other substrates have been used. When they found research saying hoisin was a miso-type fermentation that used charred sweet potatoes, soybeans, and wheat — all of which they can grow — it was game on. Sunchoke miso is just another iteration of that same idea, born out of knowing a few farmers who had extra produce to sell.

Kirsten K. Shockey is the co-author of several books, including Miso, Tempeh, Natto & Other Tasty Ferments. Follow her on Instagram @Ferment.Works, or learn more on her website, Ferment Works.

Inspiration for edible alchemy.