Fermentation isn’t something new. Long before fermented “live” foods became all the rage in upscale aisles, our ancestors were hard at work perfecting the process to preserve food. Long winters and short growing seasons made them the masters of invention in using fermentation to extend the availability of the food supply. Across cultures people utilized the process to create and enjoy cheese, wine and beer. One of the most ancient and healthiest of the fermented foods is miso, みそ or 味噌,which originated in Japan, as early as 14,000 BC in the Neolithic era. Of all the fermented food, what makes miso so special?
I customarily imbibe a hearty cup of miso soup every morning. Its steamy robust flavor is a hearty wakeup ritual that grounds me in its salty earthy broth. I love the unique flavor that feels warm and satisfying to my very being.
The special taste that miso makes!
When I was in Japan, I discovered there were five, not four basic flavors to savor. Sweet, sour, bitter and salty had always been on my mind’s palette, but for the first time I was introduced to the idea of “umami” which sort of means salty/savory. It’s best described as a robust “brothy” or “meaty” taste with a long-lasting and mouthwatering sensation that delights the tongue. It enhances food and creates balance in dishes. It is steeped in history but only “discovered” by the scientific palate in the early 20th century. Here was the taste I have bene relishing in my morning cup — hello umami!
Why miso matters?
Since Miso soup has been enjoyed for thousands of years, it likely contributes to the fact that Japan has the highest life expectancy of any major country. According to scientific research, miso contains all essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. It stimulates the secretion of digestive fluids in the stomach and restores beneficial probiotics to the intestines. This all aids in the digestion and assimilation of other foods in the intestines. Miso is an excellent vegetable-quality source of B vitamins (especially B12). It strengthens the quality of blood and lymph fluid, reduces risk for breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers and protects against the effects of radiation. Miso was a common remedy for survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to aid in the healing process. It strengthens the immune system and helps to lower LDL cholesterol.
All misos are not created equal.
The ancient traditional way of making miso is a complex art, much like wine or cheese making. The primal process involves inoculating cooked rice or barley with a particular Aspergillus oryzae spore, the same family of probiotic bacteria that is found in yogurt. In traditional Japanese farmhouses this is called Koji, made without artificial starters. This special brew is grown from naturally-occurring spores ubiquitous in the air. Many miso products on the shelves use artificial starters or yeasts to begin and hasten the process.
One of my personal favorites is Miso Master®. They use this primal Koji process when making their miso; the spores are allowed to reproduce on the cooked grain for two days, under the watchful eye of their “miso master.” The inoculated grain (now called koji) is mixed with pressure-cooked organic soybeans and sea salt and loaded into 8,000 pound fermentation barrels of cypress, redwood, or fir, imparting a depth of character and complexity impossible to achieve otherwise. Stone-weighted lids press down on the raw miso and the slow process of natural fermentation begins almost immediately. When the miso master determines it is ready, the ripened miso is removed from the barrels and packaged into cups for sale. The longer the miso ages, the richer, deeper and more robust the flavor will be. Miso Master Miso is domestically made and hand crafted using traditional ancient Japanese techniques. They never add yeast or other enzymes to speed up the aging process.
How to enjoy miso
Natural miso is a living food containing many beneficial microorganisms and probiotics that 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! There are many ways to enjoy this ancient and healthy food: in salad dressings, soups and sauces. I include one of my favorite recipes below:
Melody’s Morning Miso
One tablespoon naturally fermented organic miso
Generously sprinkled with fresh organic ginger
Topped with roughly torn segments of toasted nori
A delicate pinch of sesame seeds, scallions and bonito flakes
Covered with hot water and stirred gently
If you enjoy miso like I do please share your recipes here. This is fermentation at is most healthy and delicious!