History of miso
There is a proverb from the Edo era stating that rather than paying a doctor, you should use your money at the miso shop. In Japanese: ｢医者に金を払うよりも、みそ屋に払え」
The origin of miso is contested. One theory states that it may have arrived with a Chinese convoy, while another says that it could originate from a fish sauce like product which was popular during the Yayoi period (c. 300 BCE c. 250 CE). Regardless of its origin, miso soon began its gradual rise to popularity, bursting into the mainstream during the Edo period. A wide range of varieties developed depending on regional conditions, ingredients and aging methods—and almost every farmer had their own type of miso. Miso is made by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji (a type of mold), but many makers add other ingredients such as barley, rice and seaweed in order to create a unique flavor profile.
Fermented miso paste contains necessary bacteria (probiotics) for a happy stomach, along with an abundance of vitamins and minerals, such as protein, vitamin K and Zinc.
What are the different types of miso?
Miso is often characterized by its salty taste, but there are several variations of the paste with different levels of saltiness and flavor profiles. They are typically identified by their colors, which vary based on the ingredients and fermenting period. The most common variations of miso are:
- Shiro miso: White miso which is fermented no longer than two months. It is made with rice and soybeans and has a slightly sweet taste.
- Aka miso: Red miso which has a longer fermentation process (up to three years). This miso has a saltier and deeper flavour than shiro miso and is commonly used in miso soup.
- Awase miso: Awase refers to a blended variety, made from both white and red miso.
How to use the various types of miso in your cooking?
In Kanto (think: Tokyo, Chiba, Yokohama etc.), red miso is popular, while in Kansai (the Osaka and Kyoto region) white miso is more commonly used. While there are variations to the exact taste, all types of miso add a certain depth of flavour – umami, and a bit of salt to the dish. It can be used in a range of plant-based dishes to give them just a bit of extra flavour, or even in baking.
Especially shiro miso works well in different types of desserts as it leans in a savory but sweet direction, though as it contains salt it also works as a salt replacer. In addition to the added depth of flavour, a spoon of miso in the recipe means extra nutrients and probiotics for the stomach.
Today, miso is an unquestionable part of a healthy Japanese breakfast, and an integral seasoning in soup and other dishes. The smooth, fermented paste is often the key ingredient in creating a rich depth of flavor in otherwise simple dishes, such as miso braised vegetables.
Tips for cooking with miso
When cooking with miso, make sure it does not boil. The high heat destroys some of its nutritional components and saps its flavour.