The Many Faces of Miso

by Debra Daniels-Zeller

For more than a thousand years, people in Japan have been making and using miso, a fermented soybean-based paste with an exotic, savory, and salty flavor. Formerly a luxury food eaten by the wealthy and Buddhist monks, miso became an everyday staple for Japanese citizens in the 16th century. Today, Japan produces about 600,000 tons of miso per year. Despite Western influences, many Japanese still begin the day by eating a steaming bowl of miso soup.

Miso is typically made from soybeans, but it can also be made from other ingredients, such as rice, barley, chickpeas, or millet. White miso is used universally across Japan, but each area has its own miso specialty, which varies according to climate. The raw ingredients, such as beans or grains, are steamed and combined with koji, a grain or bean that has been inoculated with a mold and acts as a starter. This begins the miso-making process. The miso mixture is left to ferment from a few months to five years. In Kyoto, white miso is created from rice koji. Hatchomiso, made with soybean koji starter, can be found in abundance in the Aichi, Mie, and Gifu prefectures (regional states). Barley miso, created from barley koji starter, is eaten more often in the southwestern regions of Japan.

Miso can be classified according to the raw ingredients used, color, texture, or whether it is sweet or salty. There are many varieties, such as dried, freeze-dried, low-sodium, unpasteurized, traditionally made, or quickly processed and pasteurized miso. Originally created by farmers and Buddhist priests, miso shops that feature artisan-made varieties in Japan are a relatively new phenomenon. The kinds of miso offered in these shops can be compared to the many types of cheeses found in specialty food stores in Western countries. Like good balsamic vinegar, excellent quality miso is aged in cedar fermentation vats. The taste of such handcrafted miso imparts complex tones, which is a savory delight in miso soup and other recipes.

Sweet miso is more versatile for Western recipes than the hearty, salty dark varieties. You can get unpasteurized miso in natural foods stores. You can blend miso with soups or salad ressings, mash it with potatoes or turnips, or add it to cooked breakfast cereal, your choice of sautéed vegetables, refried or baked beans, pasta, vegetable and noodle dishes, vegan quiche, casseroles, gravies and sauces, marinades, bread or rolls, and baked desserts. For more about miso, check out The Book of Miso by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi.


(Serves 4)

I like to use seasoned rice vinegar for this salad dressing. You can also use traditionally brewed rice vinegar with good results.

  • ¼ cup rice vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons thawed frozen orange juice concentrate
  • 1 Tablespoon thawed frozen raspberry juice concentrate
  • 1 Tablespoon chickpea or light miso
  • 1 Tablespoon vegan mayonnaise
  • 1-½ teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 3 Tablespoons olive oil
  • Pinch of cayenne

Combine vinegar, orange and raspberry juice concentrates, miso, mayonnaise, and mustard together. Mix until smooth, then whip in olive oil and cayenne. Pour over green or fruit salads.

Total calories per serving: 138 Fat: 12 grams
Carbohydrates: 7 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 247 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram


(Serves 4)

This dip is also a good sandwich spread and goes well on tostadas and in burritos. Use red or black beans if you don't have pinto beans on hand. You can add 1/4 cup sliced olives and a few Tablespoons of thinly sliced onions or some grated carrots for a chunky dip or spread.

One 15-ounce can pinto beans, drained and rinsed 2 Tablespoons red or brown miso
3-4 Tablespoons salsa

Combine ingredients in a bowl. Blend with a hand blender or use a blender to purée until smooth. Serve with corn chips.

Total calories per serving: 188 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 18 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: 735 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams


(Serves 6)

Though this recipe bakes the miso, the sweet taste imparted to this bread creates an intriguing flavor. Look for canned sweet potato purée in the canned vegetable aisle of the grocery store. You can also use fresh baked sweet potatoes or squash in this recipe. If you are already experienced at making bread, you may want to use all whole wheat flour, but itapos;s easier for beginners to start with part unbleached white flour.

  • ½ cup soy or rice milk
  • ½ cup boiling water
  • 1 package baking yeast
  • 1 cup canned sweet potato purée
  • 1 Tablespoon light miso
  • 1 Tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1-2 Tablespoons nonhydrogenated vegan margarine
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1-½ cups unbleached white flour
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil (optional)
  • 1 Tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary (optional)

Combine the soymilk and boiling water. Let cool and add the yeast when the water is just lukewarm. Let yeast sit until it bubbles up, 5-10 minutes. Combine sweet potato purée, miso, maple syrup, and margarine. Mix well. Stir in with the yeast. Add the mixture to the whole wheat flour, stirring well. Gradually blend in the unbleached white flour, stirring until dough comes away from the sides of the bowl.

Turn the dough out onto a board and knead it for approximately 10 minutes, adding flour when necessary to keep the dough from sticking. Turn the dough into an oiled glass bowl. Cover with a piece of plastic wrap that has been brushed with oil on the side closest to the dough. Set in a warm place, approximately 75 degrees, and let dough rise for 1 hour or until doubled in bulk.

Push the dough down and knead for approximately 10 turns. Let dough rest for 5 minutes. Then, flatten dough into a circle on a parchment-lined pizza pan. Let it rise again, this time for approximately 30-45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. When it has risen, push your fingers into the dough at 1/2-inch intervals all over the top. Brush with oil if desired and top with fresh rosemary. Bake for 15-20 minutes.

Total calories per serving: 273 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 53 grams Protein: 9 grams
Sodium: 183 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams


(Serves 4)

This soup's ginger and squash combination is soothing and warming, just the ticket to sip before a soccer game or on a rainy Saturday afternoon. If you use a yellow winter squash, there is no need to peel it. Look for red pepper flakes in the spice section of your grocery store. You can purchase mirin (rice wine) and kombu (a sea vegetable) at a natural foods store or Asian market.

  • 2 cups water
  • ½ strip kombu
  • ¼ cup red lentils
  • 1-½ cups bite-size pieces of peeled winter squash
  • ⅛ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 Tablespoon mirin or sake*
  • 1 teaspoon brown rice vinegar*
  • 1 Tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
  • 1 Tablespoon sweet brown rice, chickpea, or light miso
  • ¼ cup finely chopped greens, such as mustard greens (optional)

Bring the water, kombu, lentils, squash, and red pepper flakes to a boil in a saucepan. Reduce to a simmer and cook until squash is fork-tender, approximately 10 minutes. Let cool slightly. Pour into a blender and add mirin or sake, rice vinegar, ginger, and miso. Blend until creamy. Garnish each serving with greens, if desired.

*Note: If you'd prefer not to use alcohol, substitute the mirin or sake and the teaspoon of brown rice vinegar listed above with 1 Tablespoon brown rice vinegar blended with 1 teaspoon Sucanat or unrefined sugar.

Total calories per serving: 78 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 15 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 207 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams


(Serves 4)

This marinade can also be used for tofu, although tofu does not absorb the flavors as easily as tempeh does.

  • One 8-ounce package tempeh, sliced perpendicularly to make 4 pieces
  • 3 Tablespoons thawed frozen apple juice concentrate
  • ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon brown miso
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1-3 teaspoons grated ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder or granules
  • ¼-½ teaspoon hot sauce
  • ¼ cup sesame oil

Steam tempeh for 10 minutes. While tempeh steams, combine apple juice concentrate, vinegar, and miso together, mixing until there are no lumps. Stir in water, ginger, garlic powder, and hot sauce. Then whisk in sesame oil.

Lay the tempeh in a glass 7" x 9" baking dish. Pour marinade over tempeh and flip tempeh pieces to coat. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Tempeh is now ready to pan-fry, bake, or grill.

Total calories per serving: 273 Fat: 16 grams
Carbohydrates: 20 grams Protein: 9 grams
Sodium: 181 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams


(Serves 6)

This is another recipe that uses miso for the flavor it lends to a dish. For faster preparation, use two cans of drained and rinsed black-eyed peas. Look for dry chipotle chiles in natural food stores, or use one canned smoked jalapeƱo chile in adobo sauce, which can be found in the international aisle at supermarkets.

  • 1 Tablespoon prepared mustard
  • 2-3 Tablespoons maple syrup
  • ¾ cup strong coffee or grain coffee substitute
  • 3 cups water
  • ¼ cup bourbon or brandy (optional)
  • 3 dry chipotle chiles
  • 2 Tablespoons brown miso
  • 1 cup dried black-eyed peas, rinsed, soaked, and drained
  • 1-½ cups finely diced carrots
  • 1 cup thawed frozen corn

Combine mustard, maple syrup, coffee, water, bourbon or brandy, chiles, and miso. Mix until there are no lumps of miso. Place sauce mixture, black-eyed peas, carrots, and corn in a large pot. Simmer for 1 1/2-2 hours, adding more water, if necessary. Remove chiles before serving.

Total calories per serving: 109 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 22 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 262 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams


(Serves 4)

These easy, tasty potatoes can also be made by baking the whole potatoes first, then scooping out the flesh and mashing.

  • 4 medium-sized russet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks, about 4 cups
  • 2 Tablespoons nonhydrogenated vegan margarine
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 Tablespoon white or chickpea miso
  • 2-4 Tablespoons soy or rice milk

Steam the potatoes until soft. Mash in margarine, garlic powder, miso, and soymilk until smooth and creamy.

Total calories per serving: 162 Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 28 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 195 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams


(Serves 4)

This gravy is delicious over potatoes, biscuits, or whole grains.

  • 1-½ Tablespoons oil
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 cup sliced mushrooms
  • 2 Tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup plain soymilk
  • 1 teaspoon brown rice vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon brown or light miso
  • Pepper to taste (approximately ¼ teaspoon)

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add oil and onions. Stir, then cover with a lid and sweat the onions until soft. Add mushrooms. Cover and let the mushrooms cook until they are soft, approximately 5 minutes. Blend in flour, stirring until all vegetables are coated with flour and oil.

Combine soymilk and brown rice vinegar, then slowly stir into the onion-mushroom mixture. Stir until thick. Remove a small amount of the gravy and blend it with miso. Return mix to skillet and stir in pepper to taste before serving.

Total calories per serving: 100 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 8 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 194 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams


(Serves 6)

These apples are best when served warm. They are good on their own, or serve them over a non-dairy frozen dessert with the decadent-tasting sauce spooned on top.

  • 2 Tablespoons coconut oil
  • 3 Fuji apples, cored and sliced into thin slices
  • 2 Tablespoons maple syrup
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
  • One 5.5-ounce can coconut milk
  • 1 Tablespoon light miso
  • 2 Tablespoons cranberry juice or apple cider
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • ⅛ cup currents or raisins
  • 2 Tablespoons grated coconut

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the coconut oil. When oil is hot, add apple slices and stir to coat all apples. Cover and cook until apples are soft, stirring occasionally. Drizzle maple syrup over apples as they cook. Sprinkle cinnamon and nutmeg over the apples and stir.

Combine coconut milk, miso, and juice or cider. Stir until miso is blended in. When apples are soft, stir in coconut milk mixture, lemon juice, and currants or raisins. Heat just until warm. Spoon apples into small bowls with a small amount of coconut sauce. Drizzle sauce over apples. Sprinkle coconut over each serving.

Total calories per serving: 176 Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 21 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 129 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Debra Daniels-Zeller is a frequent Vegetarian Journal contributor and recently authored Local Vegetarian Cooking: Inspired Recipes Celebrating Northwest Farms.