Tasty and Healthy Fermented Food

Miso is a fermented food made from soybeans, malted rice, and salt. It is paste-like in texture and appearance, with colors ranging from creamy beige to reddish dark brown. It has a pleasant, almost nutty aroma with an enjoyable but not overpowering salt tang. The most common use for miso is, of course, miso soup, but the truth is that the uses for miso go way beyond soup! It can be used in a wide array of foods such as salad dressings and marinades, dipping sauces or toppings for grilled foods, veggies-even desserts! Miso is a time-honored all-purpose seasoning used in Japan that brings out the natural taste of foods while giving them a boost of additional savor. No Japanese home would be complete without miso!

The History of Miso

What has been called miso's prototype, a salt-preserved food product made of grain, is said to have appeared in the Yayoi period (300 BCE-300 AD). Around the Nara period (710-794) this gradually changed into something closer to today's miso in taste and consistency.

The earliest versions of such miso, however, were still quite different than current miso. Unground grains, cereals, or beans, such as soybeans, were preserved in salt, and retained their original texture. This early miso was eaten as is, or as a seasoning or topping for tofu, vegetables, etc. It was considered a precious commodity, reserved solely for Japan's upper echelon and priests of high ranking who used it for both dietary consumption and medicinal purposes. In the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the first miso soup ( made of mashed salted soybeans mixed with water) appeared, but this, too, was only for the aristocratic palates of samurai and other nobility.

In the Muromachi period (1337-1573), farmers began planting more soybeans and making their own miso, and as a result, miso found its way into the diet of the common folk. Throughout Japan, various types of miso were created that differed according to the climate where the ingredients were raised, and the local culture from which it emerged. During the Warring States period (Sengoku jidai, mid-15th-early 17th centuries), miso played a large role in dietary provisions for soldiers on the battlefield, and gained greater recognition as a highly important source of nutrition. During the more politically stable Edo period (1603-1868) which followed, more and more regular folk began making rustic versions of miso at home. As time passed, corresponding with the expansion and development of the Edo (previous name for Tokyo) food culture and increase in population, there was a huge jump in miso consumption, which in turn led to the development of commercially produced miso. The latter half of the Edo period saw the establishment of methods almost identical to today's production methods. Miso eventually became an indispensable item in every Japanese kitchen.

Characteristics of Miso

Simply stated, miso is made by mashing boiled or steamed soybeans, mixing them with malted rice and salt and allowing the mixture to age as it ferments. While homemade miso is indeed possible to make, much as wine or beer can be made at home, only a certain level of sophistication can be reached. As consumption grew, there was also a demand for more high grade miso which needed, among other things, an improved blending and fermentation process. Miso making of this sort consists of such a variety of complex processes that it has been said that proper miso making is an art. Climate, soil, ratio of malted rice to soybeans, amount of salt, maturation time period, etc. contribute to end products differing in texture, taste, color and aroma, and these variables all must be taken into consideration without fail.

Shiro, or white, miso, the yellowish white or golden colored miso made of boiled soybeans, uses a higher ratio of malted rice to soybeans (the lesser amount of soy gives the miso its pale color) and a relatively short fermentation time which results in a miso with a mild, almost sweet, flavor. Compared to shiro miso, the reddish-brown colored aka, or red, miso which is made from steamed soybeans, has a longer fermentation time and a greater ratio of soy to malted rice which results in a richer, stronger taste and more full-bodied flavor. Since long ago in Japan, it's been said that combining different types of miso gives you a more delicious flavor than only using one type. (This idea of "harmonious blending" can be seen in several factions of Japanese daily life, not only in the food culture.) By careful blending, certain tastes of one type of miso edging toward extreme are mellowed or cancelled out, and what one type of miso may be lacking is supplemented by the presence of that flavor in another miso. The flavors meld together to complement each other and produce something that we might say is greater than the sum of its parts! This blended miso is called awase miso.

Miso's Nutritional Qualities

Soybeans, the base of miso, are called "the meat of the fields" due to being full of high quality vegetable protein. During the fermentation process, a large quantity of amino acids are generated. Miso is also rich in other nutrients such as potassium, iron, magnesium, zinc, dietary fiber, etc. Additionally, miso contains a natural yeast which functions similarly to yogurt in that it has a beneficial effect on digestive health. But the good news doesn't stop there! Miso has enzymes that aid in digestion and absorption of other foods; it acts to cut unpleasant odors, such as fishy smells, and it can be used as a tenderizer for meats. There is no other food item that contains such a variety of nutrients and has such an exceptional nutritional value!

Miso when eaten by itself, can taste quite salty, but for example, when ingested via miso soup, which uses only a small amount diluted in stock or water, the amount of sodium consumed from the miso is unexpectedly low. For those who are still concerned about the sodium level of miso, some magnesium rich wakame or spinach will suppress the body's sodium absorption. Reduced salt miso is also available.
Miso has been playing a large role in Japanese diets since the 8th century, and is as near and dear to the people's hearts as any ingredient can be. Starting with miso soup, miso can be used in all sorts of cooking, both traditional and modern, giving a rich, savory flavor to ingredients and helping to protect us from all sorts of lifestyle diseases due to its high nutritional content. One daily bowl of miso soup can help promote a healthy lifestyle. How about trying miso with some of your favorite dishes today?