Is there anything better than walking out of the bitter cold into a warm, bustling sushi restaurant, ordering some rolls, and then, while you wait, enjoying a warm bowl of complimentary miso soup?
No. The answer is no. There is not a single thing better than that feeling. But while many of us have experienced miso soup in our lives, how many of us actually know what miso is? Well, today I’m here to tell ya, so simmer down (like a soup, get it?) and get ready to cram some new info into your brain crannies.
What is miso paste?
In the words of Fraulein Maria, let’s start at the very beginning—not with the soup, but with the paste itself. Miso paste is…pause for effect…simply a mixture of soybeans and rice fermented with salt. The mixture ferments “from about six months to a few years,” according to the Washington Post. It’s that simple! Most of us know miso because of Japanese food, but it is truly a staple all over Asia, from China to Laos, and it can also be made with many other ingredients. According to Sonoko Sakai, author of Japanese Home Cooking, “There are countless varieties of miso, made with a variety of grains and beans—including rice, barley, wheat, millet, adzuki beans, and garbanzo beans—that undergo fermentation with salt and koji (the mold Aspergillus oryzae).” But the three most common types you’ll see in the store are red miso paste (higher proportion of soybeans, fermented longer, saltier), white miso paste (higher proportion of rice, fermented less long, milder and sweeter), and mixed miso paste (blend of the red and white kinds). There are also many different variations of each of those three types. The bottom line—choose what sounds good to you, try it, and then if you want to try different ones, do that!
Okay so I know what miso is now…but what do I do with miso paste?
Oh ho ho, my friend. What do you NOT do with miso paste? Obviously, you could make miso soup (which is actually super unexpectedly simple), but you can also marinate meat, whip up a salad dressing, or slather it on your face as a face mask. (Just kidding, don’t do this. Unless…? No, don’t do it. Update: OMG I was joking, but it’s real. Still, do this at your own risk.) People even put miso paste in desserts like chocolate chip cookies and peanut butter cookies to add saltiness and a rich, savory, umami undertone. I imagine a peanut butter cookie with miso would edge towards a peanut-saucy flavor space, and, boy, do I genuinely want to try that combo. But I digress. The point is: miso paste. Use it. Experiment with it. Have fun with it. And let me know how it goes! It is literally such a fun ingredient, and I can’t wait to hear about what y’all do with it.