|Alternative names||Soybean paste|
|Place of origin||Japanese|
|Main ingredients||fermented Soybean, with salt and koji (Aspergillus oryzae)|
|Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)|
|Energy||831 kJ (199 kcal)|
|Aspartic acid||1.171 g|
|Glutamic acid||1.915 g|
|Vitamin A equiv.||
|Pantothenic acid (B5)||
|†Percentages are roughly approximated using US recommendations for adults.
Source: USDA Nutrient Database
Miso (みそ or 味噌) is a traditional Japanese seasoning produced by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji (the fungus Aspergillus oryzae) and sometimes rice, barley, seaweed or other ingredients. The result is a thick paste used for sauces and spreads, pickling vegetables or meats, and mixing with dashi soup stock to serve as miso soup called misoshiru (味噌汁), a Japanese culinary staple. High in protein and rich in vitamins and minerals, miso played an important nutritional role in feudal Japan. Miso is still widely used in Japan, both in traditional and modern cooking, and has been gaining worldwide interest.
Typically, miso is salty, but its flavor and aroma depend on various factors in the ingredients and fermentation process. Different varieties of miso have been described as salty, sweet, earthy, fruity, and savory.
The origin of the miso of Japan is not completely clear.
- Grain and fish misos had been manufactured in Japan since the Neolithic era (Jōmon period (14,000–300 BC)). These are called jōmon miso and are similar to the early fish- and soy-based sauces produced throughout East Asia.
- This miso predecessor originated in China during the third century BC or earlier. and other fermented soy-based foods likely were introduced to Japan at the same time as Buddhism in the sixth century AD. This fermented food was called shi.
In the Kamakura period (1192–1333), a common meal was made up of a bowl of rice, some dried fish, a serving of miso, and a fresh vegetable. Until the Muromachi period (1337 to 1573), miso was made without grinding the soybeans, somewhat like nattō. In the Muromachi era, Buddhist monks discovered that soybeans could be ground into a paste, spawning new cooking methods using miso to flavor other foods. In medieval times, the word temaemiso, meaning home-made miso, appeared. Miso production is a relatively simple process, so home-made versions spread throughout Japan. Miso was used as military provisions during the Sengoku period, and making miso was an important economic activity for daimyōs of that era.
During the Edo period (1603–1868), miso was also called hishio (醤) and kuki (豆支) and various types of miso that fit with each local climate and culture emerged throughout Japan.
Today, miso is produced industrially in large quantities, and traditional home-made miso has become a rarity. In recent years, many new types of miso have appeared, including ones with added soup stocks or calcium, or made with beans other than soy, or having reduced salt for health, among other varieties, are available.
The ingredients used to produce miso may include any mix of soybeans, barley, rice, buckwheat, millet, rye, wheat, hemp seed, and cycad, among others. Lately, producers in other countries have also begun selling miso made from chickpeas, corn, azuki beans, amaranth, and quinoa. Fermentation time ranges from as little as five days to several years. The wide variety of Japanese miso is difficult to classify, but is commonly done by grain type, color, taste, and background.
- mugi (麦): barley
- tsubu (粒): whole wheat/barley
- genmai (玄米): brown rice
- moromi (醪): chunky, healthy (kōji is unblended)
- nanban (南蛮): mixed with hot chili pepper for dipping sauce
- taima (大麻): hemp seed
- sobamugi (蕎麦): buckwheat
- hadakamugi (裸麦): Highland barley
- nari (蘇鉄): made from cycad pulp, Buddhist temple diet
- gokoku (五穀): “five-grain”: soy, wheat, barley, proso millet, and foxtail millet
Many regions have their own specific variation on the miso standard. For example, the soybeans used in Sendai miso are much more coarsely mashed than in normal soy miso.
Miso made with rice such as shinshu and shiro are called kome miso.
Types and flavor
The taste, aroma, texture, and appearance of miso all vary by region and season. Other important variables that contribute to the flavor of a particular miso include temperature, duration of fermentation, salt content, variety of kōji, and fermenting vessel. The most common flavor categories of miso are:
- Shiromiso, “white miso”
- Akamiso, “red miso”
- Awasemiso, “mixed miso”
Although white and red (shiromiso and akamiso) are the most common types of misos available, different varieties may be preferred in particular regions of Japan. In the eastern Kantō region that includes Tokyo, the darker brownish akamiso is popular while in the western Kansai region encompassing Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe, the lighter shiromiso is preferred.
A more nuanced breakdown of the flavors is:
- Kome miso (米味噌) or “rice miso” can be yellow, yellowish white, red, etc. Whitish miso is made from boiled soybeans, and reddish miso is made from steamed soybeans. Kome miso is consumed more in eastern Japan and the Hokuriku and Kinki areas.
- Mugi miso (麦味噌) or “barley miso” is a whitish miso which is produced in Kyushu, western Chugoku, and Shikoku areas. Another reddish mugi miso is produced in the northern Kanto area. Mugi miso has a peculiar smell.
- Mame miso (豆味噌) or “soybean miso” is a darker, more reddish brown than kome miso. This is not so sweet as some other varieties, but has some astringency and good umami(旨味). This miso requires a long maturing term. Mame miso is consumed mostly in Aichi prefecture, part of Gifu prefecture, and part of Mie prefecture. Soybean (grain-free) miso is also labeled hatchō miso. Hatchō miso is an Okazaki, Aichi specialty and has its origins in Mikawa Province during the Sengoku period. The processing method with large wooden barrels and stones on the lid remains unchanged.
- Chōgō (調合) or Awase (合わせ) miso, or “mixed miso” comes in many types, because it is a mixture or compound of other varieties of miso. This may improve the weak points of each type of miso. For example, mame miso is very salty, but when combined with kome miso the finished product has a mild taste.
- Akamiso (赤味噌) or red miso is aged, sometimes for more than one year. Therefore, due to the Maillard reaction, the color changes gradually from white to red or black, thus giving it the name red miso. Characteristics of the flavor are saltiness and some astringency with umami. It is often a much stronger-tasting miso. Factors in the depth of color are the formula of the soybeans and the quantity used. Generally, steamed soybeans are more deeply colored than boiled soybeans.
- Shiromiso (白味噌) or white miso is the most widely produced miso, made in many regions of the country. Its main ingredients are rice, barley, and a small quantity of soybeans. If a greater quantity of soybeans were added, the miso would be red or brown. Compared with red miso, white miso has a very short fermentation time. The taste is sweet, and the umami is soft or light (compared to red miso).
Miso’s unique properties and flavour profile can be attributed to the compounds produced through the fermentation process. Miso, depending on the variety, consists of a starter culture called koji, soybeans, and usually a grain (either rice, barley, or rye). The miso goes through a two step process; first creating the koji, and second the koji is combined with the other components and the mixture is left to be enzymatically digested, fermented and aged.
Koji is produced by introducing the mould, Aspergillus oryzae onto steamed white rice. This mould culture comes from dried A. oryzae spores called tane-koji or “starter koji” and is isolated from plant matter (usually rice) and cultivated. In the past, the natural presence of A. oryzae spores was relied upon to create koji, but because of the difficulty of producing the culture, tane-koji is added almost exclusively in both industrial and traditional production of miso. Tane-koji is produced much in the same way as koji, but also has a small portion of wood ash added to the mixture which gives important nutrients to the fungus as well as promotes sporulation.
A. oryzae is an aerobic fungus and is the most active fermenting agents in koji as it produces amylolytic, and proteolytic enzymes which are essential to creating the final miso product. Amyloytic enzymes such as amylase aid in the breakdown of starch in the grains to sugar and dextrin, while proteolytic enzymes such as protease catalyze the breakdown of proteins into smaller peptides or amino acids. These both aid in the enzymatic digestion of the mixture of rice and soybeans. Depending on the strain of A. oryzae, enzymatic composition varies thereby changing the characteristics of the final miso product. For example, the strain used to create the sweeter white miso would likely produce a higher content of amylolytic enzymes, while comparatively a soybean miso might have a higher content of proteolytic enzyme.
To create optimal conditions for enzymatic production and the growth of A. oryzae, the koji’s environment must be carefully regulated. Temperature, humidity and oxygen content, are all important factors in not only maximizing mould growth and enzyme production, but to prevent other harmful bacteria from producing. Once the koji has reached a desirable flavour profile it is usually mixed with salt to prevent further fermentation.
Storage and preparation
Miso typically comes as a paste in a sealed container requiring refrigeration after opening. Natural miso is a living food containing many beneficial microorganisms such as Tetragenococcus halophilus which can be killed by overcooking. For this reason, the miso should 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. Outside Japan, a popular practice is to add miso only to foods that have cooled to preserve kōjikin cultures in miso. Nonetheless, miso and soy foods play a large role in the Japanese diet, and many cooked miso dishes are popular.
Miso is a part of many Japanese-style meals. It most commonly appears as the main ingredient of miso soup, which is eaten daily by much of the Japanese population. The pairing of plain rice and miso soup is considered a fundamental unit of Japanese cuisine. This pairing is the basis of a traditional Japanese breakfast.
Miso is used in many other types of soup and soup-like dishes, including some kinds of ramen, udon, nabe, and imoni. Generally, such dishes have the title miso prefixed to their name (for example, miso-udon), and have a heavier, earthier flavor and aroma compared to other Japanese soups that are not miso-based.
Many traditional confections use a sweet, thick miso glaze, such as mochidango. Miso-glazed treats are strongly associated with Japanese festivals, although they are available year-round at supermarkets. The consistency of miso glaze ranges from thick and taffy-like to thin and drippy.
Soy miso is used to make a type of pickle called misozuke. These pickles are typically made from cucumber, daikon, Nappa cabbage, or eggplant, and are sweeter and less salty than the standard Japanese salt pickle.
Other foods with miso as an ingredient include:
- dengaku (sweetened miso used for grilling)
- yakimochi (charcoal-grilled mochi covered in miso)
- miso-braised vegetables or mushrooms
- marinades: fish or chicken can be marinated in miso and sake overnight to be grilled.
- corn on the cob in Japan is often coated with shiro miso, wrapped in foil and grilled.
- sauces: sauces like misoyaki (a variant on teriyaki)
- dips: used as a dip to eat with vegetables (e.g. cucumbers, daikon, carrots, etc.)
- side dish: miso is often eaten not only as a condiment, but also as a side dish. Mixed or cooked miso with spices or vegetables is called okazu-miso (おかず味噌), often eaten along with hot rice or spread over onigiri.
Nutrition and health
Some experts suggest that miso is a source of Lactobacillus acidophilus. Miso is relatively high in salt which can contribute to increased blood pressure in the small percentage of the population with sodium-sensitive prehypertension or hypertension.
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