Like soy sauce before it, miso is a defining element of Japanese food that is now finding its way into the wider world of international cuisine.
Most Americans are first introduced to miso through miso soup. But given the chance to work with it, people find miso adds depth of flavor, umami and nutrients to everything from meat loaf to ice cream.
Five chefs spoke about, then demonstrated, their use of miso in July at a tasting panel at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. Of the five, only one chef was Japanese.
“Before going to Japan, I didn't know how to use miso except in a Japanese restaurant,” said Swedish-born chef Staffan Terje of the San Francisco Italian restaurant Perbacco. “I am a research cook. Miso is a fermented product that really enhances flavor. Being of northern European descent, there's a lot of fermented flavors that we have in common. Fermented foods really heighten flavors in food.”
Miso is believed to have originated in China. Japanese documents mention its use as early as 701 AD, when it was a delicacy for the nobility and Buddhist monks. Back then, miso was generally eaten straight (still a pretty good method – try it with crudites.)
During Japan's centuries-long internal wars between various city-states and clans, miso made the perfect food for traveling samurai: it stores well for long periods, is lightweight, and contains many vital nutrients. In fact, Japan's first miso factory was started by a military commander in Sendai.
Miso has never been restricted to a single type. The flavors and colors vary greatly depending on the source ingredients.
Miso is usually made from a mixture of soybeans and a malted grain. About 78% of the miso in Japan is made with rice, while about 6% is made with barley. Some miso – about 5% -- is made purely from soybeans, while 11% uses some mixture for the malt. Soybean-malt (“mame”) miso is dark brown, with a deep, rich flavor. Barley-malt (“mugi”) miso can be either light yellow, with a sweet flavor, or red, with a full-bodied flavor. Rice-malt (“kome”) miso has the most varieties.
As with wine, there are great regional differences in miso, but it is less from the raw ingredients than tradition and process.
To make miso, soybeans and the grain are steamed until they break down into a mash. A koji mold starter is added, and the mixture is fermented and aged. Different regions achieve different flavors by introducing the koji at different points in the process. Kyoto residents like their miso very delicate, while in Nagoya, they like it as potent as possible.
Among its other potential health benefits, miso is believed to help prevent type 2 diabetes, reduce hypertension, reduce the rate of bone loss in women suffering from menopause, and even reduce radiation sickness. People who drink a cup of miso soup every day are believed to have a 33 percent lower chance of developing stomach cancer.
The chefs' panel discussion included (in order of the dishes they presented):
Ravi Kapur of Boulevard, a Michelin-starred California cuisine restaurant in downtown San Francisco
Staffan Terje, known for his innovative yet comforting northern Italian cuisine at San Francisco's Perbacco
Bruce Hill of Bix, a San Francisco restaurant known for modern versions of classic American dishes
Paul Canales of Oliveto, an Italian-focused restaurant in Oakland known for producing his own cured meats
Shotaro Kamio of Yoshi's, a jazz club and sushi restaurant with branches in San Francisco and Oakland that's known for innovative takes on Japanese cuisine
The five chefs took a tour of Sendai earlier this year, along with a visit to Tokyo, where they said they ate only street food.
“The thing that struck me was that Japanese food is similar to Italian food in its aesthetic of purity,” Canales said. “It was always really clear what you were eating and why you were eating it.”
Terje said the eye-opening dish for him on his Japan visit was beef brisket and beef tendon simmered in a miso broth that he ate at a Sendai restaurant run by a relative of Kamio, his fellow panelist.
“After this trip, I learned miso is not a specific ingredient for a specific item,” Terje said. “It's a universal ingredient that can be used for many things. When I sampled the beef brisket and tendon in miso broth, I thought, wow, I've just got to put this in my short ribs when I get home.”
Terje said that creating appealing vegetarian and vegan cuisine is a constant challenge, particularly in the Bay Area, where so many diners insist on it. Miso is a huge help because it adds richness and protein, yet is totally vegan.
“If you try a vegetable broth, they're very mild,” Terje said. “Adding miso to a vegetarian broth, suddenly you have a lot of depth. I had a customer who insisted on having a vegetarian risotto. I added miso to the broth, and it had so much richness and flavor that the customer thought I didn't follow his request; he thought I used beef broth. But I convinced him it was miso. I don't often like to cook vegan dishes because they taste kind of bland, but suddenly you have this ingredient that adds depth and richness.”
It's ironic that Kamio ended up with the dessert course, because as a native of Sendai, he has the longest experience with miso as an ingredient in savory dishes. Perhaps that gave him the confidence to create a dessert that actually had the strongest, most noticeable flavor of the miso itself, sending the audience out into the evening with a sweet taste of miso on their palate.
Albacore Tuna with Red Miso and White Balsamic Vinegar (Kapur)
Miso and Cornmeal Crusted Fried Green Tomato, Corn and Cherry Tomato Salad, Burrata Cheese and Miso-Basil Vinaigrette (Terje)
Sauteed Black Cod with Clams and Chanterelles (Hill)
Pork Belly Cacciatore (Canales)
Vanilla Sendai Miso Ice Cream and Saikyo Miso Jasmine Tea Ice Cream (Kamio)
Kapur's dish led off with very delicate flavors and textures; miso's richness was noticeable in the sauce, but not much on the fish itself.
“Local albacore is very lean,” Kapur said. “It's very soft. It's almost too delicate to work with. I wanted to concentrate the muscle, so I made a marinade with miso and some microplaned garlic and extra virgin olive oil. The marinade shows up in the sauce on the plate and also in the eggplant.”
If Kapur's dish wasn't particularly Japanese, Terje's was even less so, even though the flavor of miso was unmistakable.
The dish was assigned as a “salad course,” but Terje interpreted that loosely with his fried green tomato topped with rich burrata cheese. The cornmeal breading on the tomato had enough crunchiness and miso flavoring to be reminiscent of a miso sembei (rice cracker), an irony because Terje said he hadn't ever tried one; he just hit on the combination in his search for the purity of the ingredients.
“The cornmeal holds in the miso flavor,” Terje said. “I marinated the tomatoes overnight to really press the flavor of the miso into the tomatoes. The burrata on top gives the richness and the salad on top gives the brightness. In the end I was able to bring out a lot of miso flavor while still keeping its identity and let the other ingredients speak. I always want to have counterbalance in food so that after a few bites it's refreshing.”
Hill's black cod dish was soft, rich and earthy: a dish that cried out for either red or white Burgundy (in fact, the beverage served with all the dishes was chilled green tea courtesy of event sponsor Ito-En, and it was a fine palate cleanser.)
While his intent was purely to make the dish delicious, Hill also showed that miso has an interesting effect on a dish's richness. All the chefs agreed beforehand that miso can be used to make a broth richer, and can even be used as a substitute for butter. But in this dish, Hill showed that miso can prevent a rich, fatty fish like black cod from being overly rich.
“The black cod can be almost too rich in some preparations, but miso cuts through the richness of the fish," Hill said.
Canales, who has used miso in cured meats, did not shy at all from richness in his dish, Pork Belly Cacciatore. That said, the miso flavor was completely hidden.
Kamio's dessert course of two different miso-flavored ice creams was accented by miso shortcake. He said he liked using miso in sweet dishes because “it adds a lot of depth and it's not what you expect from a sweet dish.” Still, he said that even though it has its own sweetness, miso is a challenge in sweet preparations.
“Miso is really salty and hard to control for dessert,” Kamio said.
While the food was being served, audience members and presenters related unconventional ways in which they had used miso.
“A friend said yesterday she put miso in her cheesecake and it made it more 'adult',” said Thy Tran, cookbook author and director of the Asian Culinary Forum.
“When I cook beef with onions, I add miso to the broth to give it more layers of flavor,” said a food product developer.
Yumi Satow, assistant professor of consumer and family studies at San Francisco State University, said, “One of my students put miso in a muffin. It had a really strong, good flavor.”
One cookbook author said, “I put miso and butter on popcorn.”
Kiyoshi Takahashi, manager of the Miyagi Miso & Soy Sauce Cooperative Association, said, “I went to an event where a chef chopped up French fries and put them in miso soup. It was amazing.”
Cookbook author Eric Gower rubs miso under the skin of chicken for roasting in lieu of salt and pepper, one of his friends said, adding that, “The chicken is so delicious that way.”
Kamio said he likes to use miso when barbecuing.
“On top of barbecued chicken or beef, you can put miso-tomato sauce,” Kamio said. “If you have any leftover sauce, don't throw it away. Put it in the refrigerator. The next day, you can add a little balsamic vinegar and you can make miso dressing.”
Canales said he used miso in a sauce for swordfish carpaccio. “It was in an emulsion with some saba and some verjus,” Canales said. “I drizzled it over the carpaccio and it was really delicate. It was beautiful.”
The outpouring of creativity with miso is to be expected, said Rona Tison, Vice President of Corporate Relations for Ito-En North America. Miso is a relatively new ingredient for non-Japanese, who are just beginning to realize its possibilities. She made an analogy to another soy-based product that has been a very successful crossover.
“Twenty years ago, Kikkoman had to give out recipes to teach people how to use soy sauce,” Tison said. “Now everybody has a bottle of soy sauce and it finds its way into everything. You find it in spaghetti sauce, everything. So maybe miso is at that early stage now.”
Miso and Cornmeal Crusted Fried Green Tomato, Corn and Cherry Tomato Salad, Burrata Cheese and Miso-Basil Vinaigrette
created by Steffan Terje of Perbacco restaurant
Miso and Cornmeal Crusted Green Tomatoes
6 slices Green (Unripe) Tomato, sliced ½” thick
½ cup Red Sendai Miso
¼ cup Buttermilk
Salt and Pepper to Taste
Fine Cornmeal for Coating Tomatoes
Mix miso and buttermilk into a smooth batter. Season with salt and pepper.
Dip slices of green tomato in miso-buttermilk mixture, then dredge in cornmeal.
Fry slices of tomato in hot oil (375F) until crisp. Let drain on paper towels.
Corn and Cherry Tomato Salad
1 cup Red or White Corn Kernels
1 cup Cherry Tomatoes, halved
Miso-Basil Vinaigrette, see recipe
Salt and Pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients in a bowl.
¼ cup Red Sendai Miso
½ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
¼ cup White Balsamic Vinegar
Salt and Pepper to taste
2 tbsp Chopped Basil
Mix all ingredients in a bowl with a whisk.
Fried Green Tomatoes
Basil Leaves (Green and Purple)
Corn and Cherry Tomato Salad
Aged Balsamic Vinegar
Place a slice fried tomato in the center of the plate.
Top with burrata cheese. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Spoon salad over burrata cheese.
Garnish with basil leaves
Drizzle plate with a little bit of balsamic vinegar.
Saikyo Miso Jasmine Tea Ice Cream
created by Chef Sho Kamio of Yoshi’s Restaurant
Makes 1 ½ Liters
600 ml. cream
300 ml. milk
300 ml. hot water
2 jasmine tea bags
30 grams mizuame
10 egg yolks
180 grams sugar
200 grams saikyo miso (sweet white miso)
Brew the tea bags in the hot water and allow to steep for 5 minutes. Remove tea bags, squeezing out liquid. Set aside.
In a non-reactive saucepan, combine cream, milk, and mizuame. Bring to a scald while whisking occasionally.
In a separate bowl, whisk egg yolks and sugar until color is pale and mixture is lighter in color (about 3-4 minutes).
Temper the cream mixture into the egg yolks by adding the cream slowly while whisking. Return contents to the saucepan.
Whisk in miso.
Continue cooking and stirring making sure that a thermometer reads at least 50 degrees Celsius and taking care that the miso does not burn on the bottom of the pan.
Add brewed tea.
Remove from heat and strain through a chinois.
Chill in an ice bath or overnight for best flavor development.
Spin in ice cream machine according to manufacturer’s instructions.