What's what and what you can use it for!
Within the past two decades, miso has entered our western pantries as a versatile and long-lasting condiment that can be used in a plethora of recipes! Soups, sauces, marinades, and even desserts: this fermented paste can jazz up nearly any dish and impress your guests with a Japanese flare.
But… What exactly is it? How many different kinds are there? Which miso is best for my recipe? Is it even healthy?
That’s what we’re here for!
History & Health
Like tea, the fermentation process for soybeans came from China and entered Japan suring the 7th century Heian period by Buddhist monks. According to Marukome, it initially was quite a luxurious item during its introduction and was eaten as a spread or on its own. Miso soup didn’t enter the typical Japanese diet until the introduction of the mortar & pestle and until soybeans became more accessible to the general populace during the Kamakura (1183–1333CE) and Edo (1603–1867CE) period, respectively. Today, around 75% of Japan eats miso soup once a day!
In regards to health, miso has plenty of benefits for your body that can be delivered in a tasty way! The first feature is the probiotics; like any naturally fermented food, miso is great for supporting the gut flora for an efficient digestive system. WebMD also reports of reduced risk of heart disease and mitigation of menopausal symptoms.
One big caveat of consuming a lot of miso is the increased salt intake. While fine in small amounts for those without health issues, those who have elevated salt levels should consult their doctor about their dietary abilities.
Miso is also naturally vegan — just make sure to get miso that does NOT include dashi!
Miso by Content
Now, there could be a miso specialty in any region in Japan so the official number of miso varieties is hard to determine. However, let’s explore the main categories that can be easily accessible all over the world!
Miso made with rice (kome-miso/米味噌) is the most common and easily found in Japan and in East Asian markets around the world. Most of the instant miso you will find abroad would probably be kome-miso as well! (Unless you get the really nice kind). The rice in this miso is not the same as the rice in the bowl next to your miso soup, but the koji: the grain mixed with a strain of bacteria called Aspergillus oryzae. In this article by The Kitchn, they explain that this bacteria is what helps break down the surrounding carbohydrates and proteins in rice and other grains.
Making miso is actually not that hard for novice and expert fermenters alike! Start your first homemade miso with this shiro miso recipe.
Barley element in Barley Miso (mugi-miso/麦味噌) is mainly the fermenting agent much like the rice koji in kome-miso. With this particular grain, it typically requires a longer fermentation time and as such is typically classified as a yellow or red miso. The barley addition will also give your dishes a rather toasty, earthy flavour that is more common in the southern regions of Honshu (main island) and the Kyushu and Shikoku islands. (This is because the southern region is not a common area for rice cultivation.)
Instead of using plain salt, try adding barley miso to your soups, stews and meat to amp up the umami! According to Clearspring, it also pairs well with tangy flavours like rice vinegar and ginger.
Lastly, a miso that is not so easily found outside of Japan is Mame (bean/豆味噌) Miso. This type of miso contains, as you guessed it, all soybeans (and salt). The fermenting koji also comes from soybeans. Being 100% legumes, this is probably the richest type of miso with the most umami flavour — as seen in the famous Nagoya-style, Hatcho miso! This thick dark miso has a deep umami flavour that really packs a punch in sauces and broths. Frequently used in Nagoya specialities like Glazed Chicken Wings or Miso Nikomi Udon!
Miso by Colour
Rice, barley, or beans — they can all take on different colours and flavours mainly determined by the fermentation period.
Originating from Kyoto, White Miso (shiro-miso/白味噌) is the most delicate in flavour and the fastest to produce. Like the kome-miso, it will also be the type most commonly found in your local Japanese stores. As for flavour, shiro miso typically has a sweeter and milder taste due to the shortened fermentation period. This miso would be perfect for white fish, vegetables, and as a flavour booster for lighter soups. (Bon Appetit recommends mixing it into mashed potatoes!)
While we recommend going to Japanese markets for more options, many Korean and Chinese markets now also have Japanese imports and even their versions like: huang dou jiang (黄豆酱) or doenjang (된장).
Red miso (aka-miso/白味噌) can be allowed to ferment for up to 3 years, which is double that of others like the white miso. This category covers all of the darker miso that can range to a russet hue to deep brown. Flavour-wise, it is typically more salty and will add more deep, earthy notes to your dish. Typically, this miso is better for red or dark meat marinades, oily fish, and fuller-bodied soup with big flavours.
There is also yellow miso which is a broad category. This name can cover miso that is similar to white miso but has a longer fermentation period with a bit of a “tang” on the palette. We can say that this version is not very common (more regional), but can add a unique note to salad dressings and other light applications. Saikyo miso (西京味噌) is a great option for grilling fish like sea bass! Just rub the yellow miso over the fillet as a light coating and let sit overnight in the fridge.
So there you have it! There are a lot of exceptions and nuances in the big world of miso and so this can be the start of your journey into incorporating this healthy culinary tool into your diet. Feel free to experiment with different types of miso and different ingredients, or just sit down and have a simple bowl of soup.
It's getting hot, so let's get into some cold dishes — like tofu! There are many different kinds of tofu at the Japanese market that you can easily add to your dietary arsenal so check back on May 21st, 12pm EST to learn more about this vegan & versatile protein. In the meantime, follow us on Facebook and Instagram for more fun facts, photos, and tidbits!