by Angela Madaras
When I turned nineteen, a whole new world of food was opened up to me through the People’s Food Co-Op. Although my aunt and father had been members since the 1970s, and I was somewhat knowledgeable about natural food diets, I certainly did not know what the heck to do with a salty paste made of fermented soy beans, rice, or barley. I had enjoyed miso soup in Japanese restaurants, but that was not the best introduction, as it was thin and lacked vegetables and other ingredients we now use more abundantly, such as shiitake mushrooms, soba noodles, seaweed, lotus root, dried fish, and fermented vegetables. As western society’s knowledge of the world of natural foods has matured, thanks in part to the growing “foodie culture,” we have widened our awareness of whole food cooking and ingredients. In 1986 I bought The Book of Miso and The Book of Tofu, both written collaboratively by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi. Like many others at that time, I saw tofu as just a white block of cheese-like substance that had absolutely no flavor, but was filled with plant protein (which we humans need) from soy beans. Miso was usually added to tofu, along with other spices and seasonings, to give vegetarians a “meat-like” protein food that was somewhat tasty, if you knew how to prepare it. These writers set out to teach us westerners just that. From these two essential cook books I learned how to prepare miso (and tofu) recipes that people enjoyed, and even paid me to make. But miso was truly the key to flavoring not just tofu, but vegetables, soups, stews, spreads, and so on.
As I explored the flavor profiles of miso, I learned there are many varieties, which offer totally unique tastes and strengths. Some misos are fermented for three years and become dark and rich with a higher salt content, which can be as much as 230 mg. salt. The younger the miso, the sweeter the flavor. Most people make soup with the lighter, one-year fermented varieties, such as chick pea miso (made with chick peas instead of soy beans) and sweet brown rice miso. There are now a plethora of choices, including specialty options such as “Garlic Red Pepper,” and “Dandelion Leek,” both made by South River Miso Company. They also make a low salt “Sweet White,” which has only 4 percent salt content. South River offers sampler packs that you can order online at www.southrivermiso.com, and also other related products and byproducts such as Tamari, made from the liquid that collects in the vat of miso and is drained and strained into a soy sauce-style seasoning. I prefer tamari over soy sauce because it seems less salty, and it comes in gluten- and soy-free varieties. Miso and tamari offer protein and all of the essential amino acids we need for a healthy body.
Miso is a natural probiotic, and like all fermented foods, it is good for digestion and gut health. Including fermented foods as part of a daily diet can lead to overall better health. Some eastern medical doctors believe that miso, eaten in moderation daily, can be medicinal. In fact, research has shown people get sick less when they include miso in their regular daily diet. Some people need to be aware of sodium content, however, and should speak with their practitioner about proper amounts for their individual needs.
The health benefits to consuming miso are reflected in the people of Japan who consume miso daily. One of the biggest proponents of miso health was Dr. Shinichiro Akizuki, Director of St. Francis Hospital, in Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II. He had his patients there fed a daily diet of brown rice, vegetables, seaweed and miso, and not one of them suffered from radiation poison, even though they were close to the epicenter of the atomic blast. In contrast, another hospital in the same area served a typical hospital diet, and saw 3,000 patients with all sorts of radiation-related diseases. Why is this so? There are many factors, as you will see below.
Anna Bond supports the health benefits of miso in Working Alchemy: The Miracle of Miso (www.wildalchemist.blogspot.com/2009/07/working-alchemy-miracle-of-miso.html).
Elsewhere (www.foreverwellsharon.wordpress.com/2013/02/27/cancer-prevention-miso-soup/), it is reported that, “Studies in Japan’s Tohoku University have isolated chemicals from miso that cancel out the effects of some carcinogens.” This is important, since we are all inevitably exposed to carcinogens in our foods and our environment. We are also exposed to non-ionizing radiation (ELFs and EMFs) given off by power lines, transformers, electrical stations, computers, hair dryers, microwave ovens, and air conditioners.
Given the many benefits that miso can offer, I want to suggest a few recipes that give you an opportunity to play with miso in a variety of ways, from savory to sweet. I suggest you go to your local health food store and ask the person who works in the refrigerated foods department, where dairy and juice can be found, what types of miso they have and what is their best seller. Staff members at our local health food stores seem to be quite educated in this area, as they are often required to obtain a certain amount of knowledge – and in some cases education and certification – when it comes to offering health advice. I was lucky enough to have a teacher who taught me how to make a plethora of tasty delights while making it fun to try new recipes. Some did not suite my personal preferences; however a few recipes I will share here won my stomach’s heart (if that is a possibility!). One is a miso hummus spread. Of the several different miso spreads I tried, this one was preferred by a group of food-loving friends and family I used as tasters. I hope these recipes inspire you to try miso, if you have not, or to expand your recipe box and stretch your culinary skills, creativity, and knowledge.
“Miso Luv You Spread”
- 1 lb (block) Firm tofu
- 3 TBS Chick pea miso
- 3TBS Tahini (use good quality)
- 1TBS Olive oil, or a blend of olive oil and toasted sesame oil
- Grated peel of entire lemon (save the juice)
- 1 ½ TBS Fresh lemon juice
- 1TBS Umeboshi vinegar or seasoned rice vinegar
- ¼ C Chopped scallions
- ¼ C Chopped parsley
- 2 cloves Garlic, crushed
- 2 TBS Nutritional yeast
Blend all ingredients in food processor until creamy and smooth. Add a little cumin, paprika, and cayenne to your taste. I like to sprinkle a little paprika over the top as a garnish before serving, along with a couple of lemon wedges and some parsley sprigs. Serve with toasted flat bread or pita. Get creative and substitute for vinegar a TBS of red pepper paste, pesto, puréed vegetables, olive tapenade or anything you enjoy that would add to the desired flavor profile.
Miso Sautéed Fish
- 1 C Mirin or seasoned rice vinegar
- 2 C Sweet miso paste
- 1/2 C Raw granulated sugar or maple syrup
- Four 6-ounce fish fillets without skin (may use salmon, pacific cod, black cod or halibut)
- Canola oil
- In a small saucepan, warm the mirin over medium heat. Do not allow it to boil. Add the miso and stir until completely incorporated, about 5 minutes. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Remove from the heat and let cool completely.
- Pat the fillets dry. Place in a baking dish and generously slather both sides with the miso mixture. Cover the dish with a piece of plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Heat a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Uncover the fish and wipe off the excess marinade with paper towels. Add the fillets to the hot pan and sear on one side until golden brown and caramelized on the bottom, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Be careful, as the fish can scorch and blacken quickly because of the sugar in the coating. Transfer the fillets to the prepared baking sheet; carefully turning them seared side up. Bake until the fish is cooked through and flakes easily, about 7 minutes.
- Plate and serve. You can serve with rice or grain of choice, sautéed greens like kale, bok choy, mustard or spinach, and lots of finely chopped garlic. Place a couple of quarters of fresh lemon on each plate, and offer crushed red pepper flakes and/or gomasio (toasted sesame seeds with sea salt and seaweed) to add an extra kick.
Squash Soup with Miso (Recipe adapted from South River Miso Company)
- 2 lbs Winter squash, such as butternut or kabocha (about 1 medium squash)
- 1 Large sweet potato
- 1 Medium sized onion, chopped
- 3 TBS Sweet-Tasting Brown Rice Miso
- 6 C Vegetable stock
- 4 Cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
- 2 tsp Ginger, freshly grated
- 2 TBS Scallions, chopped
- 1 TBS olive oil
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Pinch of sea salt
- Preheat oven to 375 ℉
- Cut squash into quarters with skin on. Leave sweet potato whole and pierce with fork in a few places. Roast both uncovered for about 1 hour, or until soft when pierced with a knife.
- When cool enough to handle, remove skins of squash, and sweet potato.
- Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the chopped onion, chopped garlic and grated ginger. Cook until softened and translucent.
- Add the vegetable stock (or substitute plain water). Add the roasted squash and sweet potato. Bring to high heat. Simmer for about 15 minutes.
- Dilute miso in about two teaspoons of water and add to soup.
- Purée with an immersion blender or in regular blender.
- Garnish with scallions and a dash of paprika. (You can also add a dollop of sour cream or plain Greek whole milk yogurt.)
- Add salt and pepper to taste. Use whatever types you prefer. Try white ground pepper and pink salt for something different
Miso Soup for Cold and Flu Symptoms
- 3-5 Cloves of garlic, crushed
- A large, thumb-size hunk of ginger root, grated
- 1 White onion, or 3 scallions, or 1 leek , chopped
- 1 TBS Turmeric -- powder or fresh grated root (you can find this at most grocery stores now)
- Pinch of cayenne pepper
- ½ C Quinoa
- A large handful of sliced shiitake mushrooms (discard stems)
- 1 TBS Miso of choice (I prefer the lighter ones here) (You can add more vegetables, seaweed, more seasonings)
Mix all ingredients except miso in a 5 quart soup pot with 3 quarts of water. Simmer for 20 minutes, remove from heat, add miso and mix well. Lasts in fridge for up to a week. Drink like a tea or slurp like a soup.
Now you know cooking with miso can be tasty and healthful, too. There are more and more recipes available online as Asian food becomes more popular and accessible (and in more healthful versions than the ones I grew up eating). Play with it and order a sample pack so you can have tastings with your friends, to find which flavor profiles are best for your tastes. You may want to throw a potluck to which everyone brings their own miso dish to share. However you do it… just try it – you’ll like it!