The Mysteries of Miso

Many Westerners consider “miso” synonymous with “soup,” primarily because many of us had our first introduction to this Japanese specialty in that form.

But miso isn’t just for soup.

Miso is actually a traditional form of seasoning made by fermenting grain or soybeans with a specific fungus (Aspergillus oryzae, or, in Japanese, kojikin). Kojikin is a filamentous fungus … essentially, a mold … which humans first turned to domestic use over 2,000 years ago.

In its newly-fermented form, miso is a thick paste which can be used to season various kinds of food. When mixed with soup stock (usually a fish-based stock called “dashi”), miso takes the form of the miso soup so many of us have eaten in Japanese restaurants.

13G miso

The earliest reported use of miso in Japan dates to the Jōmon period (14,000 B.C.-300B.C.). Back then, it was known as “hishio” – a word which refers to salty seasonings made from grain, sometimes with the addition of fish or fish paste.

“Miso” as we know it today (or approximately, anyway) dates to the Muromachi period – which is also the era of Medieval Japanese history when my Shinobi mystery novels take place. During the Muromachi era, Japanese monks started grinding the soybeans before fermentation, a change which ultimately resulted in the paste-like miso we know today.

Miso varies fairly widely in taste, aroma, and texture, but all miso falls into one of three basic varieties: red, white, and “mixed” (which is composed of red and white in varying proportions). Much of the miso Westerners taste is made from soybeans (the most common type) but miso can also be made from grains, including millet, wheat, rice, and barley (just to name a few).

Like yoghurt, miso contains live cultures and loses some of its health benefits when overcooking kills the cultured organisms. For that reason, miso is often added after or near the end of the cooking process.

And now you know a little more about miso.

Do you like miso soup? Have you ever tasted miso in anything other than soup?