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Vegetarian Journal Jan / Feb 2000

Miso Soup

It's Japanese Soul Food

By Hiroko Kato

Check out the recipes!

In the United States, Japanese foods such as sushi, tempura, sukiyaki, and teriyaki have already gained popularity. While these are typical and great Japa-nese foods, they are not the ones which the Japanese can't live without. You will find that the Japanese who live in foreign countries would almost cry if you served them a bowl of miso soup. You can see the joy of living on their faces after the first sip, then hear with a sigh, "Ah, miso soup is always wonderful!"

Why does miso soup—a very simple dish—warm the Japanese body and soul like this? One possible answer could be found in its history, which dates back more than a thousand years. Although the early history of miso in Japan is not clear, the product was imported from China, the same origin as numerous other cultural and food products in Japan. Its arrival was during the sixth or seventh century, and by the middle of the tenth century, miso became a daily food for the Japanese. Around the twentieth century, the Japanese created miso soup, which the Chinese never made from their miso, chiang. Since that time, people have been following the idea of ichiju issai (one soup, one vegetable dish), which describes the basis of Japanese eating style: miso soup and one vegetable dish with rice.

Classic Tokyo people call miso soup omiotsuke: the expression has three respect words (o, mi, and o), and no other food gets such high reverence. For the sake of a cup of miso soup a day, our ancestors could endure hard work even if they didn't have animal products. (As a matter of fact, meatless meals had been the ordinary style for Japanese from the sixth century to the nineteenth century.) Protein and a variety of other nutrients came from miso (soybeans with rice or barley) and miso soup's other ingredients (vegetables). Still, Japanese mothers commonly tell the children who skip their breakfast, "For your health, you should take miso soup, at least!"

Miso is a fermented paste of soybeans and either barley (mugi miso) or rice (kome miso), with salt. Also, there is a type of miso which is made from only soybeans and salt (mame miso or haccho miso). Now 80 percent of miso products are kome miso. Shinshu miso, a popular variety of this type, is light brown and salty; shiro miso, another popular kome miso, is white and slightly sweet. Shinshu miso is used mainly in the eastern area of Japan, while shiro miso is used in the western area. It depends on the season, too. People favor shinshu (salty) in the summer, and shiro (sweet) in the winter.

For a beginner cooking miso soup, mugi miso or inaka (country) miso would be the best choice, because of its versatile character along with a relatively mild flavor. Mame miso, or haccho miso, has a strong flavor and is very salty. It is used mainly in the central area of Japan. If you use this type of miso, be especially careful not to put too much in the soup.

The combination of miso and other ingredients affects the soup's taste. For example, shiro miso makes the best match with root vegetables, like daikon or taro; on the other hand, it would be a little strange if you put wakame seaweed into shiro miso soup. It may be because of the discordance of "sweet" shiro miso and "salty" wakame. I suggest that you try the following recipes until you become used to the "miso soup marriage."

Talking about the "marriage," the ingredients have some popular basic combinations, too. Besides the following recipes, deep-fried bean curd (aburaage) and long green onions/scallions; sweet potato and long green onions; and daikon and deep-fried bean curd are all fabulous. Also refer to the "arrangement of ingredients" for each recipe. Feel free to experiment, however. Miso soup can vary greatly. The following recipes are typical Japa-nese miso soups, but other vegetables might be used. For example, you can substitute kale for wakame, a turnip for daikon, and so on. There are numerous combinations of ingredients: you can even put tofu, wakame, spinach, and daikon into miso soup. Just enjoy cooking!

People may think that miso is a high-sodium food. Actually, there are 2,200 milligrams of sodium in a tablespoon of dark brown miso. But you can choose a less salty variety. The easy way of distinguishing is by looking at the colors. Avoid the dark brown type; light-brown (2,160 milligrams sodium per tablespoon) or white miso (1,000 milligrams sodium per tablespon) would be less salty. Also, mugi miso has 1,800 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon. Another secret of making less salty miso soup is to add a lot of ingredients. Most of all, the ratio of soup per cup will be decreased if you use plenty of vegetables, compared with selecting only wakame seaweed. Making thick dashi (Japanese style soup stock) is also a good way to create tasteful miso soup without adding too much miso.

You can find miso in Oriental stores or health food stores. Ready-made miso soup might be more common on a regular supermarket shelf, but most of these in-clude fish ingredients. Furthermore, convenient miso soup is not as delicious as one you would make yourself.

Miso soup is very simple to cook. Boil ingredients in the dashi (stock), then add miso. That's it. If you want a good soup, however, you should remember some secrets behind the simplicity, just as with cooking other Japanese dishes. Here are some tips to help you make great miso soup.


The Recipes...

Basic Japanese Soup Stock

(Vegan Style dashi)
(Serves 4-5)

Though Japanese usually make soup stock with kombu and katsuobushi (shaved dried bonito fish), or niboshi (small dried fish), this Zen Buddhist style soup is satisfying enough. Kombu (kelp) seaweed and dried shiitake mushrooms are great for making tasty soup. I recommend keeping dashi in the refrigerator or freezer, to use anytime you want.

5 cups water
5 pieces kombu seaweed (each about 1-inch long), cut in thirds crosswise, and cleaned with a slightly damp paper towel or cloth For making delicious soup stock, you should buy high quality dashi-kombu, thick and straight, as much as possible
5 dried shiitake mushrooms, cleaned and rinsed

Place water in a saucepan. Soak the kombu and shiitake mushrooms in the water for at least 15 minutes, until they become tender enough. (If time permits, more than three hours to overnight is much better.) Heat the water over high heat and reduce heat once it boils. Remove kombu just below boiling point.

After around five minutes, remove saucepan from the heat. The boiling time depends on the size of shiitake mushrooms and the soaking time. Remove the shiitake mushrooms from the water, and save them for use in other recipes.

Notes: Kombu and dried shiitake mushrooms are available in Oriental stores. You can make dried shiitake mushrooms by drying raw shiitake mushrooms in the sun for a couple of days.

You can make the soup stock with one ingredient, kombu or dried shiitake mushrooms. In this case, double the portion of the chosen ingredient and soak longer. If you cook with only shiitake mushrooms, it's better to soak them in warm water. For making thick dashi, increase the ingredients or soak them longer.

Total calories per 4 servings: 29
Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 7 grams
Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 83 milligrams
Fiber: 2 grams


Miso Soup with Daikon

(Serves 4)

Especially good for a winter dish. Oriental people believe miso and daikon make the body warm, and I believe it really works!

4 cups of vegan style dashi (see first recipe above)
2/3 pound of daikon*, julienned
1-3 teaspoons of miso (all types can be used, but in winter, shiro miso would be the best)
Recommended suikuchi: Grated ginger, thinly cut welsh onion, thinly cut Japanese basil (shiso), yuzu peel, shichimi (seven-spice chili), or roasted sesame seeds

Place dashi in a saucepan. Put daikon into dashi and boil them together. Remove scum. When daikon becomes tender, reduce the heat and add 1 teaspoon of miso at first. Taste and if you need more miso, add it little by little. Remove the pan from the heat before the miso soup boils again. Put a pinch of suikuchi on miso soup. Serve hot.

*You can find daikon at supermarkets or Oriental stores. If you can get daikon with leaves, use the leaves, too. In this case, cut daikon leaves into bite size pieces and first lightly stir-fry them with a little vegetable or sesame oil. Add them to dashi before adding miso.

Recommended arrangement of ingredients: Daikon and wakame, daikon and spinach, daikon and satoimo (Japanese taro), etc.

Total calories per serving: 39
Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 8 grams
Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 128 milligrams
Fiber: 3 grams


Miso Soup with Potato and Onion

(Serves 4)

Typical American vegetables can make savory miso soup, too!

4 cups of vegan style dashi (see first recipe above)
˝ pound potato, peeled and cut into small pieces
˝ pound of onion, sliced
1-3 teaspoons of miso (any type can be used)
Recommended suikuchi: Thinly cut welsh onion, thinly cut Japanese basil (shiso), shichimi (seven-spice chili), or roasted sesame seeds

Place dashi in a saucepan. Add potato and onion to dashi and boil them. Remove scum. When the vegetables become tender, reduce the heat and add 1 teaspoon of miso at first. Taste, and if you need more miso, add it little by little. Remove the pan from the heat before the miso soup boils again. Put a pinch of suikuchi on miso soup. Serve hot.

Recommended arrangement of ingredients: Potato and wakame, potato and snow peas, onion and wakame, etc.

Total calories per serving: 96
Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 22 grams
Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 123 milligrams
Fiber: 3 grams


Miso Soup with Tofu and Wakame

(Serves 4)

This is the most basic style of Japanese miso soup. Master it first!

4 cups vegan style dashi (first recipe above)
1 ounce wakame (dried seaweed, available at Oriental specialty stores)
10 ounces tofu (any type), diced
1-3 teaspoons of miso (any type except shiro miso)
Recommended suikuchi: Thinly cut long green onion or welsh onion, grated ginger, thinly cut Japanese basil (shiso), yuzu (Japanese citron) peels, shichimi (seven-spice chili), or roasted sesame seeds

Place dashi in a saucepan and boil. Add wakame to dashi. Next, put tofu into dashi. When dashi boils, reduce the heat and add 1 teaspoon of miso at first. Taste, and if you need more miso, add it little by little. Remove the pan from the heat before the miso soup boils again. Put a pinch of suikuchi on miso soup. Serve hot.

Recommended arrangement of ingredients: Tofu and snow peas, tofu and chopped green long onions, tofu and chopped Chinese chives, wakame and snow peas, wakame and potato, wakame and onion, wakame and green onion, wakame and bean sprouts, wakame and spinach, wakame and daikon, wakame and Chinese chives, etc.

Total calories per serving: 83
Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 8 grams
Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 185 milligrams
Fiber: 2 grams
High in iron


Miso Soup with Eggplant

(Serves 4)

Eggplant miso soup is recommended for the summer season or the beginning of autumn. In Oriental medicine, eggplant has the function of cooling down the body heat. Just for this miso soup, simple is best. I suggest not mixing any other ingredients with eggplant, except suikuchi.

4 cups of vegan style dashi (first recipe above)
1/3 pound of eggplant, caps removed and cut into bite size pieces. If possible, grill lightly.
1-3 teaspoons of miso (all types except shiro miso. Brown miso would be the best)
Recommended suikuchi: Grated ginger, thin- ly cut Japanese basil (shiso), shichimi (seven-spice chili), or roasted sesame seeds

Place dashi in a saucepan and boil. Add eggplant to dashi. When eggplant becomes tender, reduce heat and add 1 teaspoon of miso at first.

Taste, and if you need more miso, add it little by little. Remove the pan from the heat before miso soup boils again. Put a pinch of suikuchi on miso soup. Serve hot.

Total calories per serving: 35 grams
Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 8 grams
Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 119 milligrams
Fiber: 2 grams


Hiroko Kato is a Japanese freelance journalist . She recently interned at VRG through the International Internship Program.

Excerpts from the Jan/Feb Issue


The Vegetarian Journal published here is not the complete issue, but these are excerpts from the published magazine. Anyone wanting to see everything should subscribe to the magazine.



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