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Sweet, savoury, salty: how miso transforms Japanese food

Sweet, savoury, salty: how miso transforms Japanese food

by Great British Chefs 13 November 2018

Miso is a vital, indispensable part of authentic Japanese cooking, adding incredible depth to a huge variety of sweet and savoury dishes. We take a look at the different ways this fermented seasoning is used in Japanese cuisine.

Miso has been a fundamental cornerstone of Japanese cooking for many centuries. Between its use in soups, sauces, glazes, marinades and more, the majority of Japanese dishes will involve this fermented seasoning paste in some shape or form. It’s usually mixed with other ingredients or stirred into liquids like soups or sauces as it has quite a strong taste on its own (and is very thick in texture) – this allows the paste to add its incredible umami flavour to food, providing both health benefits and taste to a variety of dishes.

One would think that miso – being such a huge part of the national cuisine – would have originated in Japan, but it may well have first emerged in China. Evidence from as far back as the fourth century BC suggests that the Chinese were fermenting a mixture of soybeans, wheat, alcohol and salt to create a seasoning paste called hishio. There is also evidence of grains being salted and fermented with malt in Japan not long after, but the prevailing theory is that hishio was brought to Japan via an Imperial envoy, and then evolved to become miso some centuries later.

Types of miso

At its base, miso is made by fermenting soybeans with a starter culture called koji and sea salt, before being mixed with grains, seeds or pulses and left to mature for a specific amount of time. Rice and barley are the two most common grains added to turn fermented soybeans into miso, but it can be made from virtually any grain, seed or pulse. Wheat, millet, hemp seed and buckwheat are all used to make specific varieties of miso in Japan, with each resulting in a unique colour and flavour profile. However, the three most common types of miso are what you’ll normally find in the shops. Here’s a little more information about them.

Shiro (white) miso

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White miso (white is actually light yellow in colour, despite its name) is arguably the most versatile of all, as it’s the mildest in flavour and lends itself well to a variety of dishes. Made with fermented soybeans and rice, it’s only left to mature for a short amount of time so it can retain its light, sweet flavour and contains less salt than other varieties. White miso is ideal for use in soups, dressings, marinades and sweet dishes, as it won’t overpower other flavours and lends a satisfying umami flavour to food.

Shinshu (yellow) miso

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Richer in flavour than white miso, yellow miso includes either rice or barley and is left to mature for longer, which allows its flavour to become more pronounced. The paste can range from yellow to light brown depending on how long it’s left to mature and whether it’s made from rice or barley. If you want a stronger miso flavour than you’d get using white miso then try yellow – it’s bold enough to stand up to other powerful flavours such as chilli, garlic and soy, but might overpower more delicate ingredients such as green vegetables and broths.

Aka (red) miso

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This is a bold, assertive, salty miso that’s been matured for a lot longer than white and yellow varieties until it turns a deep red-brown colour. It’s usually made from barley to give it a deeper taste than using rice could, and is generally used in hearty, filling dishes (think wintery stews and braised red meats). The pungent flavour means you only need to use a little bit in your cooking – a teaspoon of red miso stirred into a marinade or glaze for meat will add a strong, punchy umami flavour.

Hatchō miso

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Even the vessel used to make miso can have a pronounced effect on the final flavour – a little bit like wine or whisky. Hatchō is a famous variety of miso made in Okazaki near Nagoya. It’s fermented in large cedar wood barrels for up to three years, giving the final product its distinct flavour, and only contains soybeans instead of being mixed with other grains. The resulting flavour is intense and deep, perfect for dishes where you want a fermented umami taste to be front and centre.

Health benefits of miso

Miso is eaten for its health benefits as much as it is for its umami-rich flavour in Japan. Being a fermented product means it’s absolutely packed with healthy probiotic bacteria, which improve everything from your digestive to immune system. It also contains vitamin K, copper, manganese, protein and zinc – all important minerals our bodies require to stay healthy. The Japanese diet in general is regarded as one of the healthiest in the world, and a large part of that is thanks to the live bacteria found in fermented products like miso (which is a daily staple in most Japanese homes).

How to use miso in cooking

This wonderful, flavourful fermented paste has spread across the world in recent years, becoming a valued ingredient for chefs and cooks in all corners of the globe – but its home remains in Japan. Take a look at the many ways miso is used in Japanese cooking below to get an idea of how to use miso when preparing dishes at home.

Miso soup

The most important and common use of miso, miso soup forms the foundation of most Japanese meals alongside a bowl of white rice. Miso soup itself is easy to make – it’s a simple combination of dashi (a seaweed-based stock) and miso – but it provides a delicious accompaniment to practically any meal. Naturally, different misos will give your soup very different flavours – if you use a red miso that has been heavily fermented, your soup will have a rich, deep flavour, whereas a milder white miso will be much lighter. The former may well make a great accompaniment to beef and red meat dishes, whilst the latter would accompany fish and vegetables.

Noodles and hot pots

Aside from miso soup itself, miso is used in a variety of other soup-like dishes to add depth and flavour. Ramen and udon noodle soups are often served with miso, either on the side or stirred through before serving – boiling miso actually damages its probiotic qualities, so it should always be stirred into hot soup at the last minute. It can also form the base for hot pots, a soup dish that is typically served on a burner at the table so guests can cook raw ingredients in the liquid themselves.

Sauces and marinades

One of the most versatile ways of using miso is in sauces and marinades. Because different misos can have such different flavour profiles, they add a tremendous amount of depth to meat, fish and vegetables. Meat and fish is often marinated overnight in a traditional mixture of miso, mirin and sake, before being grilled the next day. This works for vegetables, too – corn on the cob is a popular choice, often smothered in miso and grilled in foil. These miso marinades then become glazes and sauces for dishes afterwards – the meat, fish or veg can be brushed with the marinade as it cooks, glazing the outside and caramelising the sugars for a lovely sweet and savoury finish.

Braising

Similar to the concept behind the miso hot pot, braising meat, fish and vegetables in a miso-based stock allows the flavour to penetrate all the way through. This is a popular way of cooking vegetables such as mushrooms and aubergines, and fish can be gently braised until delicate and flaky. It’s also a classic way to cook and serve pork belly – as the pork cooks in a braising stock of miso, mirin, soy and ginger, the fat renders away, resulting in meltingly tender meat and a beautiful sauce all in one.

Pickling

Miso pickles – called misozuke – are a traditional and very popular preserved side dish in Japan. Vegetables such as cucumber, daikon, cabbage and aubergine are pickled in a mixture of red miso, mirin and other seasonings – the pickling liquor results in a sweet flavour, rather than saltier Western methods. Tofu can also be pickled this way – tofu misozuke is a speciality of Fukuoka Prefecture, where the tofu is cured for up to two years until it becomes soft and spreadable.

Sweets

We ordinarily think of miso as a savoury seasoning due to its rich umami qualities, but it is also widely used to flavour Japanese sweets and confectionery. It often comes in the form of a sweet miso glaze that's drizzled over sweets. Dango are extremely popular in Japan – mochi-like balls of doughy rice flour, which come glazed in sweet miso. Aside from that, the umami depth of miso provides a pleasing contrast to all sorts of sweet treats – miso is used in anything from ice cream and cheesecakes to caramel.

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