Miso is a traditional Japanese seasoning produced by fermenting rice, barley, and/or soybeans with salt and the fungus kōjikin, the most typical miso being made with soy. The result is a thick paste used for sauces and spreads, pickling vegetables or meats, and mixing with dashi soup stock to serve as miso soup called Misoshiru, a Japanese culinary staple. High in protein and rich in vitamins and minerals, miso played an important nutritional role in feudal Japan. Miso is still widely used in Japan, both in traditional and modern cooking, and has been gaining world-wide interest. Miso is typically salty, but its flavour and aroma depend on various factors in the ingredients and fermentation process. There is a wide variety of miso available. Different varieties of miso have been described as salty, sweet, earthy, fruity, and savoury. The traditional Chinese analogue of miso is known as dòujiàng (豆酱).
The earliest form of miso is known as “Hishio”. Hishio is a kind of salty seasoning which is made from grain.
The origin of the miso of Japan is not completely clear.
- Grain and fish misos had been manufactured in Japan since the Neolithic era (Jōmon period). These are called “Jōmon miso” and are similar to the early fish and soy-based sauces produced throughout East Asia.
- This miso predecessor originated in China during the 3rd century BC or earlier. It is likely that Hishio, and other fermented soy-based foods, were introduced to Japan at the same time as Buddhism in the 6th century AD. This fermented food was called “Shi”.
Until the Muromachi era, miso was made without grinding the soybeans, somewhat like Nattō. In the Kamakura era, a common meal was made up of a bowl of rice, some dried fish, a serving of miso, and a fresh vegetable. In the Muromachi era, Buddhist monks discovered that soybeans could be ground into a paste, spawning new cooking methods using miso to flavour other foods. In medieval times, the word “Temaemiso”, meaning home-made miso, appeared. Miso production is a relatively simple process and so home-made versions spread throughout Japan. Miso was used as military provisions during the Sengoku era and making miso was an important economic activity for daimyos of that era.
During the Edo period miso was also called hishio and kuki and various type of miso that fit with each climate and culture was formed throughout Japan.
These days miso is produced industrially in large quantities and traditional home-made miso has become a rarity. In recent years, many new types of miso have appeared. For example, there are ones with added soup stocks or calcium, or reduced salt for health, etc.
The taste, aroma, texture, and appearance of miso all vary by region and season. Other important variables that contribute to the flavour of a particular miso include temperature, duration of fermentation, salt content, variety of kōji, and fermenting vessel. The most common flavour categories of miso are:
- Shiromiso, “white miso”
- Akamiso, “red miso”
- Awasemiso, “mixed miso”
Although white and red (shiromiso and akamiso) are the most common types of misos available, different varieties may be preferred in particular regions of Japan. In the eastern Kantō region that includes Tokyo, the darker brownish akamiso is popular while in the western Kansai region encompassing Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe the lighter shiromiso is preferred.
The ingredients used to produce miso may include any mix of soybeans, barley, rice, buckwheat, millet, rye, wheat, hemp seed, and cycad, among others. Lately, producers in other countries have also begun selling miso made from chickpeas, corn, azuki beans, amaranth, and quinoa. Fermentation time ranges from as little as five days to several years. The wide variety of Japanese miso is difficult to classify, but is commonly done by grain type, colour, taste, and background.
- mugi (麦): barley
- tsubu (粒): whole wheat/barley
- genmai (玄米): brown rice
- moromi (醪): chunky, healthy (kōji is unblended)
- nanban (南蛮): mixed with hot chilli pepper for dipping sauce
- taima (大麻): hemp seed
- sobamugi (蕎麦): buckwheat
- hadakamugi (裸麦): rye
- nari (蘇鉄): made from cycad pulp, Buddhist temple diet
- gokoku (五穀): “5 grain”: soy, wheat, barley, proso millet, and foxtail millet
Many regions have their own specific variation on the miso standard. For example, the soybeans used in Sendai miso are much more coarsely mashed than in normal soy miso. Miso made with rice such as shinshu and shiro are called kome miso.
Types of miso by main ingredients.
- Kome miso, or “rice miso”
Can be yellow, yellowish white, red, etc. Whitish miso is made from boiled soybeans, and reddish miso is made from steamed soybeans. Kome miso is consumed more in eastern Japan, and the Hokuriku and Kinki areas.
- Mugi miso, or “barley miso”
A whitish miso which is produced in Kyushu, the western Chugoku area of Japan, and Shikoku areas. Another reddish Mugi miso is produced in the northern Kanto area. Mugi miso has a peculiar smell.
- Mame miso, or “soybean miso”
This miso is a darker, more reddish brown than kome miso. This is not as sweet as some other varieties of miso, but has some astringency and good umami(旨味). This miso requires a long maturing term. Mame miso is consumed mostly in Aichi prefecture, part of Gifu prefecture, and part of Mie prefecture.
- Chougou miso, “mixed miso”
This comes in various types, because it is a mixture or compound of other varieties of miso. This may improve the weak points of each type of miso. For example, Mame miso is very salty, but when combined with Kome miso the finished product has a mild taste.
- Akamiso, or red miso
This is aged for a long time, sometimes more than one year. Therefore, due to the Maillard reaction, the colour of this miso changes gradually from white to red or black, thus giving it the name red miso. Characteristics of the flavour of this type of miso are saltiness, and some astringency with umami. It is often a much stronger-tasting miso. Factors in the depth of colour are the formula of the soybeans themselves and the quantity of soybeans used. Generally, steamed soybeans are more deeply coloured than boiled soybeans.
- Shiromiso, or white miso
This is the most widely produced miso, made in many regions of the country. Its main ingredients are rice, barley, and a small quantity of soybeans. If a greater quantity of soybeans was added, the miso would be red or brown. Compared with red miso, white miso has a very short fermentation time. The taste is sweet, and the umami is soft or light (compared to red miso).
Storage and Preparation
Miso typically comes as a paste in a sealed container requiring refrigeration after opening. Natural miso is a living food containing many beneficial microorganisms such as Tetragenococcus halophilus which can be killed by over-cooking. For this reason, it is recommended that the miso be added to soups or other foods being prepared just before they are removed from the heat. Using miso without any cooking may be even better. Outside of Japan, a popular practice is to only add miso to foods that have cooled in order to preserve kōjikin cultures in miso. Nonetheless, miso and soy foods play a large role in the Japanese diet, and many cooked miso dishes are popularly consumed.
Refer to Miso Soup
Miso is a part of many Japanese-style meals. It most commonly appears as the main ingredient of miso soup, which is eaten daily by much of the Japanese population. The pairing of plain rice and miso soup is considered a fundamental unit of Japanese cuisine. This pairing is the basis of a traditional Japanese breakfast.
Miso is used in many other types of soup and soup-like dishes, including some kinds of ramen, udon, nabe, and imoni. Generally, such dishes have the title miso prefixed to their name (for example, miso-udon), and have a heavier, earthier flavour and aroma compared to other Japanese soups that are not miso-based.
Many traditional confections use a sweet, thick miso glaze, such as mochidango. Miso glazed treats are strongly associated with Japanese festivals, although they are available year-round at supermarkets. The consistency of miso glaze ranges from thick and taffy-like to thin and drippy.
Soy miso is used to make a type of pickle called “misozuke”. These pickles are typically made from cucumber, daikon, hakusai (Chinese cabbage), or eggplant, and are sweeter and less salty than the standard Japanese salt pickle.
Other foods with miso as an ingredient include:
- Dengaku (sweetened miso used for grilling)
- Yakimochi (charcoal-grilled miso covered mochi)
- Miso braised vegetables or mushrooms
- Marinades: fish or chicken can be marinated in miso and sake overnight to be grilled.
- Corn on the cob in Japan is often coated with shiro miso, wrapped in foil and grilled.
- Sauces: sauces like misoyaki (a variant on teriyaki) are common.
- Dips: used as a dip to eat with vegetables (e.g. cucumbers, daikon, carrots, etc.)
- Side dish: miso is often eaten not only as a condiment but also as a side dish.
- Mixed or cooked miso with spices/ vegetables are called ‘okazu-miso’ (おかず味噌), which are often eaten along with hot rice, or spread over onigiri.