Have you heard about miso? It’s this hot new ingredient . . .
Okay, I’m lying. Miso is more than 2,000 years old and has been a staple at American health-food stores for about as long. I used to have one of these stores two blocks from my house, and I’d mainly go there to buy beer and oatmeal, ignoring the tofu-miso-tempeh section. The other customers were too polite to tell me what I was missing. Then the store went out of business. This was probably my fault.
Here’s why you and I, the cooks, should know about miso: It is a bucketful of umami. Dishes made with miso have punch. Using miso is one of the easiest ways to make a vegetarian dish that will satisfy meat eaters. And the stuff is allegedly good for you. Roll with it.
I was reintroduced to miso recently in the cookbook Japanese Hot Pots, by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat. I flipped through, looking for an appealing recipe, and alighted on Pork Miso Hot Pot.
You begin by making a stock with three ingredients: water, red miso, and kombu (kelp). Whisk them together and bring it to a boil, and the stock is done.
I was astonished: I’d made a great soup base in two minutes with a few cents’ worth of ingredients. I couldn’t stop dipping a spoon into the pot and tasting it. For this recipe, I added pork, tofu, and loads of vegetables, but I could have gone in any direction and it would have been great: noodles, fish, shellfish, chicken, wakame seaweed, anything.
Before I tell you which miso to buy and what to do with it, let’s talk a little bit about where miso comes from. Miso is soy sauce’s mom. Soy sauce was originally a miso byproduct, the dark liquid that dripped off, like curds from whey. Don’t get me wrong — soy sauce is good stuff. But miso is more so.
Like sushi, miso originated in China but is now most closely associated with Japan, although there are similar soybean pastes in Chinese, Thai, and Korean cooking. (Sichuanese hot bean paste is a relative, for example.) You’ve heard of miso soup, no doubt, and perhaps miso-marinated fish. But miso can do a lot more.
When you go to buy miso, especially in an Asian market, you’ll find several varieties. The mildest and most versatile is white (shiro) miso. Red (aka) miso is saltier and more intense than white. At the top of the scale, the miso equivalent of Vegemite, is hatcho miso, which is reddish-black and very firm.
You can also find things like chunky misos, awase miso (usually a mix of red and white), and miso with dashi added. (I’d avoid the dashi-miso blend, since you can easily make your own dashi at home by simmering kombu kelp and bonito flakes in hot water.) Start with an inexpensive Asian brand — organic certainly wouldn’t hurt — of white miso and work from there.
Miso is more than high-quality bouillon. It’s the Asian equivalent of demi-glace, the heavily reduced meat stock featured in some of France’s most full-flavored dishes. When a dish is lacking in flavor, Anthony Bourdain is fond of suggesting, just add demi-glace. Miso works in the same way — a tablespoon in a stir-fry or soup can often save the day — but unlike demi-glace, miso is meatless and costs just a couple of bucks.
I say all this now, but I was only really awakened to the cross-cultural potential of miso when I read Jaden Hair’s new The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook. Hair’s blog is known for great Asian recipes and gonzo humor. When I emailed her, she told me to put miso in my spaghetti.
“Fast food,” she wrote. “Plain spaghetti plus sautéed garlic in loads of butter and a tablespoon or more of miso. Soy sauce and top with big spoonfuls of roe and shredded toasted seaweed.”
(You can skip the roe and use fish flakes or sesame seeds, if you prefer.)
Miso and butter may hail from different continents, but they met on vacation and are now total BFFs. I first learned of the combination in Gourmet magazine (sob) when they printed a recipe for David Chang’s Corn with Bacon and Miso Butter. But miso and butter work well with any vegetable.
Jaden Hair takes the combo a step further by making a stick of miso butter to keep in her fridge. She mashes the miso and butter together, wraps it in plastic, and rolls it into a log. Then she uses it for steamed vegetables and to top steaks.
But let’s back up. Say you’re like food writer Betsy Block, who admitted on NPR that she often buys a pint of miso and forgets about it in the back of the fridge because she doesn't know what to do with it. I asked Hair for a prescription for the miso virgin.
“Mashed potatoes is the easiest,” she said. “I always say that when you’re experimenting with a brand-new ingredient, use it in a recipe that you’re already familiar with, so that you minimize the variables and just keep it simple.”
Miso mashed potatoes? Seriously? She shared the recipe. I made it for dinner, and even the miso-skeptical members of my family were thrilled. But what’s next? Miso apple pie? Hmm.
Related recipe: Miso Mashed Potatoes
Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.
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An American native
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