Make Mine Miso
Japan’s gooey, gluey paste is mysterious and terrific
by Aidan Morgan
Let's be honest: when sushi rolls show up shrink-wrapped in gas stations and food courts, it's hard to think of Japanese cuisine as exotic. But though we may enjoy a bento box with its tidy compartments and kelp-encased fish, we don't really know much about the food we're throwing down our throats.
Take miso, that substance that makes up the key ingredient in miso soup. What is that stuff? Where does it come from? What are its intentions? Does it have another use, aside from its regular appearances in broth?
(Please note: miso has no intentions. It's not sentient. And if it were, it would probably be friendly.)
Miso is a fermented paste of rice, soybeans or barley, with a particular mold culture thrown in. Different ingredients make for different kinds of miso. North American diners are most familiar with shiro miso, a cream-coloured concoction of fermented rice and soy. That's the cloudy stuff shifting around in your little bowl of soup.
My favourite kinds of miso are mugi and gochujang. Mugi miso is made mostly from barley. It's a deep, brick-red paste with an intensely salty and sharp flavour, almost like extra-old cheese. As for gochujang, you've probably tried it already. Ubiquitous in Korean restaurants, gochujang is a spicy sauce served with bi bim bap and other awesome dishes. It's bright red, smooth in appearance but slightly grainy on the tongue, with a more complex flavour than sriracha or other hot sauces.
Some may argue with my inclusion of gochujang in the miso family, but those people are miserable and alone. Pre-emptive ad hominem!
Cooking blogs and miso containers will tell you that miso is great for "sauces, salad dressing and marinades." This is the kind of information that sounds helpful until you realize that it's the equivalent of being told that a door is great for "opening, closing and walking through."
But it's true: you can use miso almost anywhere. Mixed with a bit of oil and wine and brown sugar, you'll have a pork marinade that will make you weep for all the years you didn't know the joys of miso pork. Vegans, in their obsessive quest for strange things to consume, enjoy miso gravy for its rich flavour and its protein-rich echo of meat.
You can even try spreading miso paste on toast, as I did. But once it's on the toast, don't eat it (as I did). Just marvel at its spreadability. Seriously, don't put that stuff on toast.
If you want to try messing around with miso at home, why not start with the basics: mastering a bowl of miso soup. Fortunately, nearly everything you need can be found at a couple of specialty grocery stores around the city. Bear in mind that I say nearly: you will likely have to make some substitutions along the way.
First, the broth. Dashi broth is a regular player in Japanese cuisine, and it consists of two ingredients: kombu (or konbu) and bonito flakes. Kombu is a tough, dried seaweed, and you can find it lots of places (I located mine in the spice section of Nature's Best on 14th Ave.). Do not get confused and buy nori, or laver, or any of those paper-thin seaweed sheets. Kombu is the stuff you'll be simmering for its delicious, delicious glutamate.
Katsuo-bushi , or smoked dried bonito fish flakes, are not easy to find in Regina. In fact, I haven't found the stuff anywhere. At Seoul Mart, a Korean grocery store just south of downtown, you can find boxes of hon-dashi, or instant bonito pellets. It's high in sodium and not cheap, but one box feels like a lifetime supply of the stuff. As a cheaper alternative, buy a bottle of something called 'soup base soy sauce.' Or maybe 'soy sauce soup base.' Bonito extract is one of the main ingredients.
Here's the bit where I tell you what to do. Heat up a pot of eight cups of water with about half a package of the kombu I told you to buy, or a good fistful of the stuff. Raise the water to a simmer over medium heat and turn off the stove. Steep for about 10 minutes.
Remove the pot from the heat. If by some miracle you found bonito flakes, throw in two handfuls. If not, mix in a teaspoon or so of instant bonito pellets, which look like miniature rabbit food. Cover and let steep for 7 minutes.
Strain the dashi. Season the broth with soy sauce, sake and mirin. Mirin is a Japanese cooking wine (and once again, available at Nature's Best and many other places). Start with a small amount of these ingredients and adjust to your taste. If you want to completely avoid any alcohol in your cooking, that's when the 'soy sauce soup base' comes in handy.
Then it's time to bring in the namesake ingredient. You can pick up little containers of shiro and mugi miso at Nature's Best (yeah, yeah, I know, but it's in my neighbourhood), and I leave the choice up to you. Shiro miso will give you a soup closest to a Japanese restaurant experience. Mugi is a dark, dangerous affair that will pull your taste buds down into a vortex of smoky, salty deliciousness. Mugi miso soup is a film noir for your mouth. So go with mugi! I recommend around ¼ cup to start. Taste until you're satisfied with the flavour.
This is really the start of a good miso soup. Most restaurants add cubes of tofu and chopped-up green onion to fill it out, but you're safe at home, away from the severe eyes of chefs. Add whatever grabs your imagination. I've added carrots, shiitakes, steamed bok choy, leftover chicken (did you know I have a ton of leftover roasted chicken?), and ramen noodles.
Go on and make something great. And tell me about it. And invite me over, because I'm really hungry now.