Developed in Japan over a millennium ago, MISO is a full-bodied savory or sweetly salty fermented food which adds deep flavor notes to both traditional Japanese and Western dishes, alike, yet also has health-promoting properties and essential antioxidants to maintain good health in our modern world.

Why Japanese Miso is so healthy

Due to the interaction between soybeans and koji-inoculated grains that, along with salt, are the basic ingredients used in the preparation of miso, miso has a number of essential health-giving components. Miso suppresses high blood pressure: By drinking miso soup regularly, one can reduce overall sodium intake by 30%. Furthermore, miso directly lowers blood pressure due to inherent components that make it easier to release salt from the kidneys. Ingestion of one bowl of miso soup a day also improves blood vessel age and has skin-beautifying and moisturizing effects because of the antioxidants contained in miso. There is also strong evidence which points to consuming miso in the daily diet as a way to ward the body against cancer. While all lofty claims, the overwhelming evidence does seem compelling, and the fact that the people of Japan live longer than in any country in the world is proof that Japan historically has had a healthy lifestyle and diet.

History of Miso

The earliest record of the use of miso in Japan appears in the Taiho code of 701. Scholars cannot say with absolute certainty whether miso was first introduced to Japan from Korea or China or whether it evolved organically from within Japan itself, or indeed all three. While various theories exist, it is commonly held that the method of making miso from tama (fermented miso balls) originated in Korea and is the progenitor to most Japanese farmhouse miso. Whereas the method of fermenting miso from koji-inoculated grains was transmitted from China, most likely through Buddhist channels, and was the method favored by the nobility and in monastaries. Furthermore, there is speculation that the evidence of salt-making during the prehistoric Jomon period and the fermented fish and meat concoctions of Yayoi (300 B.C.–300 A.D.) point to a native miso-making culture, which naturally evolved in the northeastern region of Japan, known as the “miso heartland.” In any case, the making of miso can be traced back undisputably to as early as 700 A.D. — well over 1000 years ago.

Miso was mentioned in the Engishiki (927 A.D.) as a soup ingredient for the wealthy in the 10th century, but because of its expense, most people could only eat a small dab of miso on rice or pickled vegetables. Also miso was an important seasoning added to simmered fish or vegetables, and thinned with vinegar, became a sauce for a salad of raw fish (namasu). By the 18th century, soy sauce had virtually replaced miso as the flavoring agent in urban areas, and by the year 2000, 90% of miso used in Japan was used for soup.

Miso soup, as we know it today, evolved in the Muromachi period (1336–1573) when miso soup–making parties emerged as a popular past time. the host would prepare the basic soup (atsume jiru) with seasonal ingredients and the guests would bring side dishes to enjoy with the communal soup. A rudimentary version of instant miso soup developed in Muromachi by samurai going to battle. Dried taro stems were simmered in miso then braided into long ropes (imogara nawa), which the samurai wore around their waists. The samurai cut pieces of the miso-simmered rope off while on the battlefield and poured boiling water over to create an instant life-sustaining ration.

The main flavoring of Japan shifted from miso to soy sauce in urban areas over a period of more than two centuries. However, in rural areas, miso remained the seasoning of choice over soy sauce well up to the end of the 20th century. And while many farm families continued making their own miso up until the 1950s, it was rare to make soy sauce because of its difficulty. Nonetheless, miso adds saltiness, flavor, and fragrance to food, so is experiencing a worldwide increase in popularity and use. And with a high content of glutamate acid, miso contributes both tart and sweet elements along with complex flavor structures. The paradox of Japanese haute cuisine is the saying: “Not to cook is the ideal of cooking,” and miso is an exceptional method to introduce complex, fermented salt notes to any cuisine.

About Fermentation

While most miso is fermented to some degree, there is a wide range of differences between miso in regards to ratio of koji to soybeans as well as fermentation period.

Koji (Aspergilus oryzae) is a spore that has been used for fermentation in Japan for thousands of years. It is the mysterious, magical element that enables complex fermentation of Japanese traditional foods such as miso, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and mirin. Miso with a high percentage of koji tends to be barely fermented, or perhaps better put, matured rather than fermented, and has a quite mild profile. Unfermented miso is more like a salty-sweet condiment—much loved in the areas where it is made and often used for classical preparations in restaurants—this style of miso could be added to cookie or cake batter to give a slight, yet essential boost of richness.

Local areas that make fermented miso crave the mellow and savory characteristics that develop naturally over time. The complex fermentation notes and heady aromas of such miso are highly valued, as well as virtually addicting. and this kind of miso should be considered almost like a savory salt-plus condiment. Also, each miso maker prides itself on making its own proprietary koji since koji is one of the key factors to determine taste in miso. It is said that you cannot make the same miso even when using the same ingredients because koji always develops subtle variations to its flavor profile each time.

Fermented foods introduce probiotics into our diet and are crucial elements to promote good health through cooking. Full flavored and naturally sweet and well-balanced by acid, they add powerful nuances to any dish. Fermenting provides the benefit of preservation while making foods more digestible and more nourishing. Fermented foods are central to artisanal and traditional foodways and defy globalization and industrialization of food in the modern world. And Japan is the country of fermentation.

Worldwide, the fermentation boom has taken hold and miso is the poster child ingredient for this movement: Intrepid chefs and fermentation aficionados are wildly experimenting with the making of any number of unusual misos—some to better degrees of success than other. Nonetheless, the Japanese method of making miso has stood the test of a time without variation over a millennium so this beautifully simple method that follows the natural rhythm of the seasons and the autumn harvest is deserving of the respect it commands. Miso is a homely yet extraordinary condiment that can be the star of a dish or slipped into any preparation as a hidden taste (kakushi aji) to add complexity and beneficial components.

Types of Miso

Miso types are determined by the koji-inoculated grain used to make each miso (i.e. rice, barley, or soybean). The process to make miso, whether automated or artisanal, basically does not differ, and involves a two-step fermentation process. The grain used for incubating koji is soaked overnight, drained, steamed 80%, cooled to body temperature and then inoculated with koji spores (Aspergillus oryzae) before being held in a humid anaerobic environment to propogate for 2 days. The koji-inoculated rice, barley, or soybean is mixed with cooked soybeans, which have been soaked over night before steaming and grinding, salt, and sometimes a little “seed miso” (tane miso) from the previous year’s batch. The mash is packed in cedar barrels, enamel tanks, or fiberglass vats, and left to ferment for weeks, months, or years, depending on the type of miso. Good bacteria transforms simple sugars into various organic acids which, in turn, impart distinctive proprietary flavor profiles to the miso while also preventing spoilage.

Kome (rice):
From quick-fermented shiro miso and Kaga miso to 6-months- or 1-year-fermented inaka miso, kome miso represents a fairly wide range of flavors. Quick-fermented varieties are made with an appreciably larger percentage of koji than other misos and have a sweet, only slightly salty profile with little fermentation. These quick-fermented sweeter varieties are good for adding a gentle miso flavoring to vegetable dishes or fish marinades. Inaka miso is an excellent choice as a basic miso since it is mild, yet still has heady fermentation notes for savory dishes.

Mugi (barley):
Soybeans, barley koji, and salt, which are traditionally fermented for 6 months to 1 year (one summer). Soft, luscious, and fragrant from the barley, mugi miso is particularly good in simmered dishes but absolutely delicious in just about anything. Highly favored in Western Europe—perhaps because mugi miso goes well with olive oil.

Mame (soybean):
Long-fermented for 2 to 3 years from soybeans, soybean koji, and salt. Dark and deeply flavored with lovely beery notes, mame miso makes rich winter broths, and is a good candidate for mixing with lighter miso varieties (awase miso) to add overall complexity. Hatcho miso is a type of mame miso produced in Aichi prefecture in central-eastern Japan and is weighted with massive rocks for 2½ years, to promote fermentation and intensity of flavor.

Source:Japan Miso Promotion Board