While many people think of it as a healthy Japanese seasoning, there’s a lot more to miso than just miso soup. Last month, the Yardbird crew visited a miso company called Rokko Miso Co. in Ashiya, Hyogo. Established in 1918, this company is run by the third-generation owner, Kenji Hasegawa, who adheres to the traditional production methods of making miso. The crew got the unique opportunity to tour the facilities and sample the many different types of miso made at Rokko Miso Co.
Originating in China, miso is believed to have started as a fermented fish and soy seasoning. Miso made its way to Japan in the 7th Century and over time, the methods for making it were refined and many different varieties of miso were developed. It’s safe to say that miso has now become completely integrated into Japanese cuisine.
Between the 8th-12th centuries, miso was reserved for nobility and monks and was either spread directly onto food or eaten straight. Later on, miso soup became a staple for the Kamakura samurai and, eventually, common-folk too once farmers began to make their own. In the Edo period (17th-19th century), a wealthy merchant class emerged, which created a demand for high-grade miso. This demand was met with innovation as more sophisticated miso products and recipes started to develop.
Surprisingly, there are several parallels between sake production and miso production, especially in the beginning stages. Similar to sake, miso production begins with a starter culture called koji. Koji is created by inoculating steamed rice with koji mold (aspergillus oryzae). Soybeans are then steamed and ground up. The koji is combined with the soybeans, salt, and usually a grain. The mixture is then packed into tightly sealed containers and left to ferment. The length of fermentation time depends on the type of miso being made.
Approximately 1,300 different types of miso exist, but there are three main classifications:
Kome miso: Made from soybeans, malted rice, and salt. Kome is the most commonly found miso in much of Japan. The most prevalent style of kome miso is yellow miso (shinshu miso), which semi-sweet to full-bodied. You can also find white miso (shiro miso) that’s light in flavor and salinity as well as full-bodied red miso (aka miso) that is thick and rich in flavor.
Mugi miso: Made from soybeans, malted barley, and salt. Mugi is mainly found in Kyushu and the Southwest. It is sweet to full-bodied and its color can range from light yellow to red.
Mame miso: Made from soybeans, malted soybeans, and salt. Mame is found near Nagoya and is the thickest type of miso, with a deeply rich flavor.
Miso soup is eaten daily throughout Japan and is a fundamental part of the Japanese diet. But aside from soup, miso is also used in ramen, udon, nabe (Japanese hot pot), pickles, and even some traditional confections. It can also be used as a sauce, dip, marinade, or side dish. More and more, miso is being used in Western cuisine and cooking styles these days.