We’re so pleased to welcome Suzanne Kahn, a history grad student and author of the food blog, An Overdetermined Life, to share her musings on what miso means to her daily diet in light of its long history and nutritious makeup, the second part especially relevant, as we’re talking wholesomeness on the blog all month. If you’ve ever had a period in your life where you subsisted on instant ramen (and haven’t we all?), you’ll definitely identify with Suzanne.
Miso soup is the original instant soup. Not Cup Noodles, not cans of tomato soup, not those packets of dried Thai noodle soups.If you’ve got some miso paste in your refrigerator, miso soup can be as quick and easy to make as any pre-packaged soup. Toss in some rice, veggies, and maybe some protein, or try noodles and tofu and mushrooms, and you’ve got an instant, satisfying, and healthful meal. I started with some precooked brown rice, tofu, and avocado, but pretty soon was experimenting with other combinations. Miso soup was my gateway into more adventurous cooking for one. It felt like I had begun to feed myself like a grown-up.
Five years later, I still turn to my original miso-avocado-tofu combination when I’m running low on time or inspiration. When I’m throwing a dinner party and suddenly worry I haven’t made quite enough food, I often pull together a fast miso soup using garlic, tomato paste, miso, and maybe some tofu. Miso is a good thing to stock in your refrigerator, and, these days, it’s not hard to find. Whether in your local grocery store, natural foods store, or Asian grocery, you can usually find miso. In fact, you’re more likely to be overwhelmed by the options than have difficulty tracking it down.
This was not always the case. Until the 1960s, most Americans were not familiar with miso. Even today, though there is widespread familiarity with miso soup on Japanese menus, most of us don’t know the history of this ancient ingredient or much about the many varieties we might see available.
So, without further ado, a miso primer–the story of what miso is and how it became (almost) as popular with Americans as instant ramen.
First, the basics. Miso is made from fermented soybean. The process is generally started by mixing soybeans with a cultured grain (most commonly rice or barley). The cultured grain, known as a koji, is made by inculcating the grain with the mold aspergillus oryzae. The soybeans are mixed with the koji, water, and salt and then allowed to ferment for anywhere from a couple of months to three years. Miso is thus a living food like yogurt and many cheeses.
People have been making miso in Asia since ancient times. The practice is believed to have originated in China, where fermented soybeans are known as jiang. In the 700s, the fermentation practice spread to Japan. Centuries went by. Then, Japanese immigrants brought miso-making to the United States in the early 20th century. The first miso company in the U.S. opened in Sacramento in 1907. Over the next 15 years, four more miso companies opened, all in California and all founded by Japanese immigrants. These companies seem to have produced miso mainly for the tightly knit Japanese immigrant community and did not sell to a broader audience. It was not until the 1960s that Caucasian Americans began to try out the product.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Americans discovered natural foods (along with environmentalism, folk music, and the sexual revolution). This is when miso came into the consciousness of Caucasian Americans. It was the macrobiotic food movement that gave miso its first push into Caucasian American’s consciousness, according to John Belleme, one of the authors of The Miso Book.
In particular, a Japanese immigrant Michio Kushi began to train people in macrobiotic eating. Consuming miso was central to this diet, because of miso’s many purported health properties. Kushi opened a natural food store in Boston, Erewhon Natural Foods Market, and began importing large amounts of miso and selling it to New Englanders. As people trained by Kushi spread out across the country they introduced Americans to miso and the natural foods movement embraced it wholeheartedly.
Around the same time, Americans began to embrace sushi, first at high-end restaurants in Los Angeles and New York, bringing a second audience to miso, via the ominpresent miso soup.
This was also the moment when researchers began investigating the health benefits of miso. Studies claimed a wide variety of bonuses derived from eating the paste: protecting people from radiation poisoning, helping prevent cancer, and lowering cholesterol. In an era of concern about radioactive fallout and nuclear war, these claims also helped aid in miso’s popularity.
And so, it was in the 1970s that the first non-Japanese Americans opened miso production companies. Belleme, for example, founded his, the American Miso Company, in 1979. Since then, the popularity of miso has continued to spread. When the American Miso Company opened in the 1970s , it sold two kinds of miso and sold 80,000 pounds a year. Today, the miso makers produce seven kinds and sell 600,000 pounds a year.
So, how do you pick a miso? First off, buy a paste not the instant powdered stuff. The paste, which has the consistency of peanut butter, makes soup just about as quickly as the powder but retains more of the flavor and health properties. Miso paste varies both by what kinds of grains are used with the soybeans, the proportion of beans to grains, the salt content, and the length of aging. Sweeter misos are lower in salt and soybeans and ferment for a shorter time; darker misos are are higher in salt, higher in soybean content and ferment for longer. Which miso you buy depends on what you are making, but yellow (or medium, mild) miso falls somewhere in the middle of all of these measures and is the most versatile miso to keep on hand. It’s good in soups, dressing, and marinades.
You don’t have to be a microbiotic eater or a sushi enthusiast to keep miso on hand. I think it’s a pantry essential for the same reason I did just out of college—it’s not only delicious, it’s practically instant soup.