Mixing fermented soybeans with fungus does not necessarily sound like gastronomic heaven, but that hasn’t stopped the Japanese condiment known as miso from taking the culinary world by storm. Check out any number of restaurant menus and social media sites these days and you’ll find it just about everywhere, used not only in traditional Japanese dishes, but in soups, salads, and even chocolate.
Miso has been an essential ingredient in Japanese diets for around 2500 years, and today most Japanese begin their day with a warm bowl of miso soup, which is believed to stimulate digestion.
With a wonderful sweet/salty flavour that can be used in a wide variety of recipes, miso is made by fermenting soybeans, salt, a gut-friendly fungus known as a koji mould, and various other ingredients such as rice or barley. The most popular varieties of miso include hatcho (made with soy only), genmai (made with soy and brown rice), kome (made soy and white rice), mugi (made with soy and barley), natto (made with soy and ginger) and soba (made with soy and buckwheat).
In fact, miso paste comes in hundreds of different varieties, with the colour varying from light yellow, excellent in sweet miso soup, through to deep dark brown, which is delicious with root vegetables and dark leafy greens. It can be sweet and mild through to salty and pungent, depending on the length of the fermentation, which traditionally takes place in cedar kegs, and the grains used. In Japan, different types of miso are prepared and appraised in much the same way as Westerners judge fine cheeses.
The current global popularity of miso is being fuelled by the growing demand for all things fermented, such as kimchi and yoghurt. And one of the main reasons for this is that fermented foods are extremely good for you, containing live bacteria that have been shown to promote a healthy gut, whilst providing a great source of antioxidants, dietary fibre and protein. The nutrients found in miso also include vitamin B2, vitamin E, vitamin K, calcium, iron, potassium, choline and lecithin.
But perhaps one of miso’s greatest attractions is that it boasts ‘unami’, the mysterious and recently recognised salty and savoury ‘fifth taste’. Unami has a mild but lasting aftertaste that is difficult to describe, and has the distinctive quality of being able to bring the other tastes (bitterness, sourness, sweetness, saltiness) together to create a more harmonious dish and a more complete taste in the mouth.
Used to flavour soups, sauces, dressings and marinades, and to make delicious patés, miso is basically a taste bomb, and that’s ultimately why it has become so popular in homes and restaurants throughout the world, from Reykjavik to Riyadh.