Ingredient focus - miso

Flavours of Japan: miso

by Shu Han Lee 01 August 2019

Shu Han Lee unravels the wonderful world of miso, that most ubiquitous of Japanese ingredients, and talks us through the flavours of the four main types: white, barley (yellow), red and hatchi.

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Shu grew up in Singapore and continues her nation's obsession with food in London, where she writes about food that's seasonal, British, yet Singaporean at the same time.

Shu grew up in Singapore and continues her nation's obsession with food in London, where she writes about food that's seasonal, British, yet Singaporean at the same time.

A bowl of miso soup is one of the simplest and most comforting things to eat and to make. It’s often saved me on countless rushed weekday mornings and ‘Fridge Forage’ nights, when I’m desperate for food that’s fast, easy and healthy at the same time. Making the broth takes probably as much time as it takes to look up the number of a delivery service and read off your order twice to the harried staff on the other side of the phone.

You only need to stir in a tablespoon of miso paste into a bowl of hot water (homemade stock or seaweed dashi if my fridge is in a happier state, or if I’ve got a bit more time), along with a drizzle of sesame oil, generous shakes of white pepper and some spring onions – which I snip with kitchen scissors straight into the bowl. From start to finish, a plain bowl of soup takes a couple of minutes– maybe a bit more if I want to beef it up with other ingredients. I vary my miso soups with noodles or rice; fresh vegetables and herbs and/or a bit of chicken or seafood according to my fancy.

Miso is made by the fermentation of soybeans, usually with other grains such as rice, wheat and barley. This process results in a rich, savoury paste that not just seasons a dish but lends it instant umami depth, making it much more exciting than plain old salt. The fermentation also cultivates minerals, vitamins and gut-friendly bacteria, making it a very healthy paste for something that sounds too ‘instant’ and delicious to be good for you. To reap the maximum digestive benefits of miso, you should avoid boiling the ‘live’ miso, so I tend to stir it into soups at the last minute.

That said, it would be a shame not to cook with miso or use it into other ways. I sneak miso into all sorts of dishes – stews, marinades, sauces, dressings and even flavoured butters. Depending on the length of fermentation and the additional grains used, you have a huge variety of flavours to work with, so it never gets boring.

Here are some of the most common types of miso you’ll come across.

White miso

Also known as shiro miso, this miso is a light golden yellow paste. White miso is fermented for the shortest period of time (about a year). It’s the least salty, and has a delicate, mildly sweet flavour from the high percentage of rice used. This makes white miso the most crowd-pleasing and versatile variety – suitable for light soups, sauces and most other dishes. If you’re new to miso, you should probably invest in a tub of white miso first.

Yellow miso

Fermented slightly longer than white miso, with barley and sometimes rice, yellow miso (shinshu miso) is a golden yellow to light brown colour. It’s got a slightly richer and saltier flavour, but is still mild enough to be used in a wide variety of dishes. I find it just as cook-friendly an option as white miso. When it’s made with barley, you often also refer to it as mugi (barley) miso. You can find mugi miso in both smooth and chunky textures.

Red miso

Despite its name, red miso (aka miso) refers to any miso that’s a dark red to deep brown colour. This miso is fermented for a much longer time and is generally quite salty with a strong, intense flavour. The flavour can range widely (salty, earthy, fruity, sometimes even boozy), depending on the fermentation time and secondary ingredients used. I usually have a couple types of red miso and save them for hearty braises, stews and marinades, with ingredients that have a more assertive flavour.

Hatcho miso

This is the king of the lot. It’s made purely from soybeans and is fermented for a good two to three years, resulting in a dark (almost black) firm paste that resembles chocolate fudge. It’s got the most pungent flavour of the lot, so you definitely need to save this for robust stews and marinades, or combine it with other misos and sauces.