Why you should eat miso daily?
There has been references that miso and rice for Japanese people are like ‘meat and potatoes for Americans’. Miso is Japan’s traditional seasoning and health food. Making miso is an art. Hundreds of varieties of this classic Japanese staple can be found across the country, and like wine and cheese, it reflects local customs, almost to the extent of having a D.O.P. Each miso’s fermentation and aging process involves a multitude of factors from the type of koji used, to the cooking technique and even the length of time, all resulting in variances of taste, colour and texture. Made from fermented soybeans, there are many well documented health benefits. On this trip to Japan, in Matsumoto City, we met Hayashi san, the president and master shinshu miso maker at Marusho Jozo. Through our conversations, I found out he is 80 years old. But the man, does not look a day past 65 years old. The complexion of his skin, its tautness and most importantly his agility climbing up the ladder to the miso barrels was impressive. I asked him what was his secret. Miso soup of course! Every morning, his wife would make miso soup for him for breakfast. This was enough to convince me that miso may be the answer and we all should be eating miso daily!
Health effects of eating miso
- Many studies have shown the health benefits of miso on humans and animals. Benefits include reduced risks of breast, lung, prostate, and colon cancer, and protection from radiation. Researchers have found that consuming one bowl of miso soup per day, as do most residents of Japan, can drastically lower the risks of breast cancer.
- Miso has a very alkalizing effect on the body and strengthens the immune system to combat infection. Its high antioxidant levels of vitamin E, amino acids, saponin and lipofuscin gives it anti-aging properties.
- Miso helps the body maintain nutritional balance. It is loaded with other nutrients along with its beneficial bacteria and enzymes. Miso provides protein, vitamin B12, vitamin B2, vitamin E, vitamin K, choline, linoleic acid, lecithin, and dietary fiber. It aids in digestion too. Its high content of the amino acid tryptophan makes miso a good choice right before bedtime. Tryptophan is nature’s sleep inducer.
- Miso helps preserve skin beauty through its content of linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid that helps skin stay soft and free of pigment.
- Miso is a good choice for women with menopausal complaints because it is able to fill estrogen receptors and produce some of the actions of estrogen in the body.
Where does it come from?
It is said that miso was brought from China or the Korean Peninsula, its method for making originated from the application of a fermented spice made from ground fish, meat and salt, and a type of fermented soybeans and millet in the 7th century. However it is also said that Japan’s warm and humid weather created the existing miso at the time. Although miso-like food was found from remains from the Jomon Period, the early authentic literature on miso was released during the Heian Period.
Umm for Umami
Many have wondered what makes miso so umami? Similar to savoring a piece of parmesan cheese, a sizzling T-bone steak and perfectly ripe tomatoes, miso does evoke some of these irresistible savory appeal and a complex robust flavour sensation making us wanting more. Before this trip, I knew of the existence of white and red miso and mainly the commercially available ones with hurried fermentation. During this trip, I learnt that little bit more about Japanese miso and the traditional art of making miso. Miso is created from soybeans (or, sometimes, other beans), grain—usually rice or barley—and salt. To activate fermentation a koji (starter) is added, usually one that includes a mold called Aspergillus oryzae. Koji is a type of fungus which secretes deigestive enzymes. The aminolysis of soy protein and fat is largely due to the Koji. When the ingredients are mixed with Koji, they are called mame-koji for mame-miso, kome-koji for kome-miso and mugi-koji for mugi-miso. Although the Koji mould spores themselves disappear when they are mixed with water and salt, the digestive enzymes are still alive and the activity of the enzymes is the key point of miso making. Kome-koji is high in salt content. Shinshu-miso (kome-miso)contains 12-18% of salt whereas Hatcho Miso holds 9-12% only. Naturally made miso can go through a cycle of fermentation and aging that lasts as long as long as three years. We visited 3 artisanal miso places making different types of miso, namely shinshu miso (a type of yellow kome-rice malt miso), gujo miso (a kind of mame-soybean malt miso) and hatcho miso (mame-soybean malt miso), the rarest type that represents 0.2% of Japanese miso production.
Known for its distinctive acidic, astringent and bitter flavor, Hatcho Miso is made by the Hatcho Miso Company in Hatcho (Eighth street), to the west of Okazaki castle. Hatcho is the place where Hatcho Miso originated and it is “hatcho= eight cho”(cho is an old unit of length used in Japan to measure distance: one cho is equal to 108 metres) away from Okazaki castle where Tokugawa Ieyasu, who founded the Edo feudal government, lived. In the Meiji era, Hatcho Miso became the daily choice of the Emperor of Japan. Produced using a long-established artisan technique, Hatcho Miso comprises just approximately 0.2% of the total volume of miso produced in Japan. Hatcho Miso is famous for the same reason that Okazaki is famous: Tokugawa Ieyasu, stone products, and fireworks.
It’s an all-soybean miso, which is about medium on the sweet/strength/saltiness scale, and is a good general purpose miso. With a long fermentation process, it has a reduced water content compared to other types of miso. It is easy to digest due to the aminolysis of the soy protein and is high in vitamins and minerals. Most importantly, it is a natural food since neither food additives nor pasteurisation is used. Koji mould in miso needs carbohydrates, the right temperature and enzymes. Summer in the Tokai area(the middle part of Japan) is hot and the hot weather accelerates koji mould fermentation very quickly in kome (rice)-miso or mugi (barley)-miso. Thus Hatcho Miso developed mame (beans)-miso which contains less carbohydrates and tolerates the hot weather much better. It was Tokugawa Ieyasu’s favourite and his armies were supplied with hatcho miso because it has a longer shelf life due to its reduced water content. It also has been taken on Japanese expeditions to the South Pole.
Kakukyu Hatcho Miso (〒444-0923 69, Oukan-dori, Aza, Hatcho-cho, Okazaki-shi, Aichi, Japan)
Based on traditional techniques, Kakukyu has been providing hatcho miso with its long history and traditional flavor handed down for 19 generations since 1645. The Hatcho is located on the banks of the Yahagi River, as it was easy to transport soybeans and sea salt there. Also Hatcho is the best place where high-quality springwater is easily accessible from the granitoid ground in Okazaki and is endowed with the right temperature and suitable humidity in order to make Hatcho Miso. Yahagi soybeans or Nanbu soybeans (Touhoku) and Aiba salt (Kira at the mouth of Yahagi River) were mainly used back then, however currently the ingredients are from all over the nation such as soybeans from Hokkaido and sea salt from .
During the olden days, salt, Yoshino cedar for miso vats and river stones for piling on miso were transported by ship. Half a shipful of salt was unloaded and the rest were carried to Asuke at the upper reaches of the Yahagi River. The salt was transported on foot or by horse from there to Shiojiri along a road called “shio no michi (The road of salt)”. Then the empty ship was loaded with a lot of river stones and brought them back to Hatcho. It was paid for by miso as a replacement for money and the ship owner left a certain amount of miso for himself and sold the rest in Osaka or Edo.
Making Hatcho Miso
Firstly, the carefully-selected soybeans are immersed in water and are left to soak up moisture in moderate amounts depending on the temperature, humidity and actual state of the basic ingredients. This process is one of the crucial elements in producing miso and significantly influences the quality of the final product. Following this, the soybeans are steamed with hot vapor for 2 hours and left in the closed cooker overnight. We were told it is this process that gives hatcho miso its deep, cocoa brown colour and characteristic smoky flavour. The koji mold [Aspergillus oryzae] is added to the surface of the beans, and the soybeans are left to ferment. Next, salt and water are added to the fermented soybeans and thoroughly blended together, after which the mixture is laid into a wooden vat large enough to hold 6 tons of miso. The miso is left to slowly mature over a period spanning more than two years.
Protein within the miso break down whilst inside the wooden casks, enabling it to transform into miso. Then, as the miso continues to ferment, amino acid starts to crystallize and white grains known as ‘millet grains’ (so named due to their resemblance to millets) start beginning to appear. When the millet grains start to surface, it is a sign that the miso has matured, and this can be likened to the crystallization of amino acids in cheese that has been matured over long periods. Throughout this lengthy period of maturing, the salt harmonizes with the miso, giving it a mellow saltiness.
The most difficult job in the production line goes to the stone-layers. Once in the barrels, the beans are covered with a cloth tarp. The stone-layers must create a stone cone pyramid of 3 tonnes. This process is still done by hand. The pyramid like river stones are not merely piled up randomly. It is carefully-calculated not to collapse. The stones are piled up by making the outside higher and putting pressure on the centre. This structure operates similar to stone walls of old Japanese castles and can withstand earthquakes with a seismic intensity of 3 or 4. It requires 10 years of experience to pile up stones in a good shape. The reason why one big stone of 3 tonnes cannot be used is because there would be deviations to one side or the other. This shape puts an equal amount of pressure over the paste to keep the moisture separating from the solids, maintaining product quality throughout the entire tub.
How this works is the extreme pressure of the stones on the dry miso creates a low oxygen environment that encourages the growth of Hatcho’s special type of micro-organisms. Over the centuries, a particular strain of Aspergillus, known as Aspergillus hatcho, has made its home in the cracks and crevices of the old seasoned vats and throughout the fermentation rooms seen here.
Today, the traditional Yahagi blend is not sold. Every year, this blend is presented to the shrine for worship activities. Most of what is sold are of the Hokkaido soybean blend. The miso is rich dark, full bodied, intense in flavour, almost alcoholic. It is also less sweet taking on the qualities of a fine bottle of aged whisky. I personally quite like this blend as it exudes a lot of character and is a testament to true craftsmanship, the process was done the obeying traditional method of making miso dating back 400 years ago.
Produced specifically in Gujo Hachiman, is a type of mame-miso known as Gujo miso. Apparently, it is also called jimiso which means local miso, meaning that every household who makes it, makes it slightly different. However, to be classified as mame miso, it should not detract too much from using only soybeans and mame-soybean malt and the length of fermentation is at least 1 year.
Daikokuya (Honmachi, Gujo Hachiman, Gifu Ken, 501-4216)
Anywhere you visit in Japan, you will find regional types of miso paste produced by long-established family-run businesses using traditional methods and one must-have ingredient—the micro-organism that dwells in miso makers’ old wooden buildings. Daikokuya is well known for its homemade miso made from local grown soybeans and fresh water. This is a family run business started 70 years ago right in this charismatic old town.
If you look closely to the picture hanging on the wall in the photo below, you can see the texture of gujo jimiso. It is pretty watery due to the higher water content added and very different from the brick like dark red Hatcho miso produced. Gujo jimiso has more salt added and hence requires a longer time to reach maturity compared to shiro miso. Daikokuya ferments miso for at least 1.5 years. The colour of gujo jimiso is dark red in colour due to its prolonged fermentation process. The gujo jimiso is not blended and the whole soybeans can be seen in the miso. It actually reminded me very much of the salty “taucheo” by the Chinese known as the salty preserved soy beans.
The wooden vats used by Daikokuya are about 70 to 100 years old too. When Hiroyuki san’s grandfather started the business 70 years ago, these vats were bought from elsewhere. At Daikokuya, he has about 10 vats. Each vat holds 1 tonne of soybean mix, a far cry from the 6 tonnes that Kakukya’s vats hold. The method of production of gujo jimiso is that of mame-miso and it is quite similar to that of hatcho miso as detailed above. The only difference is the salt added and the water amount used. Gujo jimiso uses the soybean malt method as well. He explained to us to that it takes him 1 week to do 200-300 kg of miso so technically, each vat requires at least 4 weeks to fill up before he seals it for fermentation. Increasingly, these barrels will be retired due to hygiene concerns by the health authority. He has started using plastic vats with covers due to new government regulations. Today, only Hatcho miso artisan makers are approved to use the cedar vats for their natural maturation process due to the uniqueness of the process and the relatively low oxygen and water used. The special Aspergillus Hatcho mold cannot be replicated in other places thus far.
Besides making miso, Daikokuya also brews tamari and mirin. Previously, when I was doing research on gluten free, in an attempt to find a substitute for soy sauce which almost always contain gluten, I chanced upon tamari and had always assume it is gluten free soy sauce with a fancy name. I have learnt that tamari is specifically Japanese soy sauce and it is in actual fact a by product of miso production. It is the liquid piled up on top of miso during fermentation as can be seen in the below picture.
The tamari is great to use for dipping of sashimi. It is very rich, complex and thick. It had the characteristics of aged balsamico vinegar, with sourish notes.
We found these interesting packs at Daikokuya. This was in fact miso wrapped in hoba leaves. Hoba is the leaf of the Japanese magnolia. The large leaves of the ho tree (a type of magnolia) have antibacterial properties, and in this area are used to wrap portions of sushi or mochi rice cakes. Dried, the leaves are used to prepare hoba miso.
This is a speciality of the Takayama area. The custom originated as a way to thaw out pickles that were frozen solid in the depth of winter. Apparently, water in Takayama area is hard, so it is unfit for miso soup. Hence the locals thought of a way to enjoy miso without the soup. Chopped negi (green onion), mushrooms and wild plants are mixed and seasoned with miso on a hoba and they are broiled. Now miso soup has been served in any ryokans and restaurants by using water filter, but hoba-miso remains a local favourite dish.
Miso is a local traditional seasoning that represents the Shinshu region, the former name of Nagano Prefecture, which produces Japan’s largest volume of the fermented soybean paste. Glossy and golden yellow, the nutritious seasoning made of soybeans, malted rice and salt has been valued by locals as a source of energy since long ago. It is a very popular variety of miso with residents from Tokyo as told to me by my interpreter, Rie san as compared to gujo miso and hatcho miso. Shinshu miso is a form of kome miso using rice malt rather than soybean malt. It however can be full bodied in taste like that of hatcho miso with a 2 year fermentation process achieving a dark red colour too as seen in the pictures to follow.
Marusho Brewing Co., Ltd. (Yubinbango390-0826 Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture Degawa cho 7-7)
Hayashi san’s grandfather started the business 120 years ago in 1895, and since its inception, the brewery is proud to continue making shinshu miso the traditional way using carefully selected raw materials. He explained what makes Nagano perfect was the purity of the water and air in Nagano, and it being at a fairly high altitude being surrounded by mountains thus having cold winters, warm summers, excellent spring and fall weather.
Here, rice malt is mainly used for the fermentation. However, we have learnt Hayashi san is a pretty innovative person using buckwheat malt mixing in with the rice malt to create new types of miso via varying the ratios used. A wide variety of kome-rice malted miso is sold here, ranging from those that are 6-8 months, 1 year and the highly priced 2 year old miso and among these, the reddish and strong-flavored shinshu miso is used widely in most households. Walking around his shop, you can see that he is very creative with miso filled doriyaki, miso pan (breads), miso donuts and a variety of miso coated rice snacks and nuts. I loved the azumino miso rice crackers that he sells. In summer, he even makes miso ice cream! He makes a wide variety of miso based sauces for cooking and salad dressings too.
With a vocational training in mechanical engineering, it was no surprise when we toured his miso making facilities. It was pretty automated in the process from the steaming of the soybeans until the addition into the vats for fermentation. He shared with us that in the 1970s, was when he started to introduce machines and slowly automating the system. He too has changed to using plastic vats due to government regulations which prohibit making of miso in wood vats for safety reasons.
Indeed, I feel truly privileged to actually learn so much from the master brewers themselves about the art to making miso, the commitment to make the best miso as how they have been taught and to also continuously innovate on new products using miso to keep up with the trends and habits. Hayashi san, also has an online store and does delivery to homes and other businesses. I never realised that there is so much art that goes into miso making with the variances of the malt used, the fermentation periods and even the adaptation to the regions where they are produced.
Generally, good miso is expensive. Like good yoghurt, it is a living food, full of enzymes, micronutrients and active cultures. Since pasteurization kills any beneficial microorganisms (and some taste) along with undesirable ones, it’s best to buy unpasteurized miso. Organic, traditionally made Japanese misos are ideal and worth the money. Miso must be stored in the refrigerator, where it will keep for months. Maybe years. To keep it from spoiling, always use a clean spoon when you remove it from the container.
The color can be a fairly good indicator of the strength of flavor, age and saltiness of the miso. Generally speaking, the lighter in miso color, the sweeter (less salty) it is. Light colored misos are also younger than dark colored ones in general. The longer a miso is aged, the deeper in flavor it gets, though it can get bitter if aged too long. Commercially available miso is usually aged from 3-6 months to 2 years.
Besides miso soup, there have been many new innovative ways of having miso, like as miso butter, miso mayo, as marinade for grilling vegetables and meats. Go forth and explore! As a general rule of thumb, the white miso or sweet miso which has a milder and more delicate flavour, is great for soups, dressings and light sauces for salads, seafood and even mashed potatoes and probably best not for prolonged cooking. Yellow or shinshu miso which is fermented longer is more adaptable to most cooking applications from soups to glazes. The red miso or aka miso which is generally stronger, is best used for rich soups, braises and marinades. As the taste can be overwhelming, it is best to use sparingly.