Why One Cookbook Author Starts Every Morning with a Bowl of Miso Soup—Plus, Other Ways to Use Miso
Every morning for nearly 40 years,I've made fresh miso soup for my family. I prepare enough dashi for the whole week and keep it in the fridge, so I am already halfway there. I pour the dashi in a pot, bring it to a boil, add sliced daikon or broccoli or whatever veggie scrap I find in the fridge, then turn down the heat, add cubes of soft tofu and cook just until they're warmed though. While that's happening, I dissolve some miso in dashi and stir it in to the pot. The soup gets ladled into bowls and sprinkled with sliced scallions and a pinch of shichimi pepper. It's ready in no time. Miso soup is my husband's coffee alternative. It's what I eat instead of toast. It gets our engines running. Just like the millions of Japanese people who practice this ritual, our breakfast is not complete without it.
I like to think it's my homemade miso that makes it taste so good. I first learned how to make it by watching my mother. She packed cooked and mashed soybeans, rice that had been inoculated with a beneficial mold called koji-kin (Aspergillus oryzae) and sea salt into a crock and walked it down to our basement.She would periodically stir the mixture, ultimately letting it ferment for between six months and two years. Perhaps not a hobby you want to take on unless you are willing to wait and are curious like me. Whenever she wasn't looking, I would go down to the basement, open the crock and stick my finger into the pot for a lick. It was the most divine lick, better than peanut butter or frosting. I was hooked.
But miso is much more than a soup. It is a versatile seasoning that finds its way into so many of my dishes: thinned with vinegar and oil to make a nutty dressing, combined with sake to tenderize meat and seafood, smeared on rice balls or how about adding a bit to your carrot cake's cream cheese frosting for a hint of caramel-corn-like flavor? Miso can be bold and present or used as a hidden flavor enhancer, called kakushi-aji in Japanese—a term for a seasoning that balances out the flavors and brings harmony to the whole dish. Add a dollop to your pasta sauce to give it a punch of umami and you'll wonder why you haven't done it your entire life.
Presently, I have three crocks of miso fermenting, labeled March 2020. They have been sequestered in the corner of my pantry since the pandemic began. My habit of sticking my finger in the pot continues. I taste salty, tangy, earthy, toasty, strawberries and lots of umami, perhaps like Parmesan cheese. It's a hauntingly delicious living food. It's the best miso I've ever made. Sorry to brag. Incidentally, we have a Japanese phrase for that, too: "temae miso," or "my homemade miso," which is used when you want to show off something you are proud of, but don't want to be boastful. It can be anything you nurtured with your hands. Miso is mine.
Recipes to Try Using Miso
- Cookbook author and cooking teacher Sonoko Sakai has a passion for miso, the fermented bean paste that's a staple in Japan. Here, it adds depth of flavor to curried chicken and vegetables. If you make the curry roux ahead of time, you can add it to broth or water like bouillon.
- There is a long tradition of grilling in Japan—even rice, which is shaped into balls (onigiri) and brushed with lightly sweetened miso. The shape is a matter of preference. Cookbook author and cooking teacher Sonoko Sakai says that, in her family, they always make them triangular but you can also form them into rounds or ovals. Be sure to use sticky short- or medium-grain rice; the long-grain kind will not hold together. Serve them right off the grill, while they are still hot and crispy.
- If you think tofu tastes bland, try pressing it and marinating it in miso. The process changes its texture into something that resembles soft cheese—creamy and spreadable with a subtle tang. The longer you marinate, the firmer and tangier it becomes. Incredibly versatile, you can serve it on toast or rice, pan-fry it in oil until crispy or serve over a salad with a vinaigrette.
- This mixture of buckwheat groats, miso, walnuts and chives is traditionally toasted on a wooden rice paddle and nibbled with chopsticks while sipping sake and waiting for the noodles to cook at soba restaurants. (Here, we broil it on a foil-lined pan for ease.) Serve with crackers or crudités, if desired. For a more Western-style dip, skip the broiling step and stir the mixture into 1 cup sour cream or plain yogurt.
- Miso soup can be enjoyed any time of the day, but it is traditionally a Japanese breakfast soup. Many restaurants serve it with just a few morsels of seaweed and tofu, but at home, miso soup can be hearty, packed with just about any vegetable. You can skip the process of making the dashi and use low-sodium broth instead.
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