Japanese basics: miso and miso soup

[Update:]Here are very detailed instructions for making miso soup. See also: updated miso soup how-to with step by step photos.

misoshiru.jpg

The health benefits of miso, or fermented soybean paste, have been studied and touted a lot in the last few years. Soy bean products like tofu, natto (fermented soy beans) and miso are all supposed to help to prevent breast cancer. The reason I like miso soup though is simply because it's good. Like rice, miso soup is an integral part of Japanese food culture.

Miso paste can be used for many other things besides soup. Thin it out a bit with some sake, soy sauce and a bit of sugar to make a great marinade or brush-on sauce for meat, fish and even vegetables. You can also completely encase vegetables such as cucumber and eggplant (aubergine) - the small Japanese or Chinese kind, not the big Italian kind - in miso for a day or so in the refrigerator, to make delicious miso zuke - a sort of miso marinade. You can treat meat, such as pork filet, or fish in this manner too, but I like it best with vegetables.

There are two major types of miso: red and white. Red is a dark reddish brown, and white is actually a sort of yellow-brown. Red is supposed to be saltier and stronger in flavor, though not all red miso is. White is more popular, and more versatile. There are as many kinds of miso in Japan as there are cheeses in Switzerland, though outside of Japan we only tend to see the major brands.

Miso soup, or misoshiru, is very easy to make once you have basic dashi stock. The key to good miso soup is to add the miso at the end, and not let it come to a rolling boil after that. If you need to re-heat it, do so gently.

Basic Miso Soup

For about 4 servings, you need:

  • 4 cups of basic dashi stock
  • 1/3 - 1/2 cup of miso
  • gu or extra ingredients (see note below)

Heat up the dashi if it's cooled. Simmer any hard ingredients, such as potatoes or daikon radish until tender.

Add any ingredients that don't need any cooking, such as wakame seaweed or tofu.

Take the miso in a ladle, and add a little bit of the hot stock, Mix the miso and stock together in the ladle with a chopstick until the miso is dissolved. This step ensures that there will be no lumps. (Go easy on the miso amount at first, and taste. If you need to add more you can.)

Dissolve the miso mixture in the soup. Don't let it boil or the flavor will dissipate. Serve immediately.

Here are some easy ingredients combinations, or gu, that you can put in the miso soup:

  • Cubed tofu and presoaked wakame seaweed cut into small pieces. (A very easy to handle brand of wakame is "Fueru Wakame-chan", available in Japanese or Asian food stores. It comes in precut form in little pouches. Wakame can also be used in seaweed salad. Soak it briefly before using - oversoaking makes it slimy.
    Hint: to cube tofu so that it doesn't fall apart, cut it up on a wet chopping board and slide it in the pan slowly, or else cut it up on the palm of your hand.
  • Cubed potatoes (simmered in the soup until tender) and wakame. This is one of my favorites in the cold months.
  • Julienned daikon radish, simmered until tender.
  • Julienned cabbage, simmered until tender.
  • Sliced button or shiitake mushrooms, or canned nameko mushrooms., with tofu and some chopped green onion added just before serving.

There are many, many other combinations. Try out your own and see what happens.

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Comments

hi Maki, stumbled upon your site... nice site! and I just love this pic! may I ask, how did u manage to capture the steam rising from the soup? ooohhh... am hankering for a bowl of steaming miso soup right now! : )

Hi Renee. I didn't take that photo...I used a stock photo from a company in Japan called Sozaijiten (http://www.sozaijiten.co.jp) - since I've done a couple of commercial food websites in the past, I have a whole boatload of royalty free photos to play with (though some are taken by me or my partner Max, who's a great photographer). I agree it's a great pic :)

hi
i really like this page! i found it while looking for some sites on japanese miso soup for a school project. i have only one question, do you happen to know of any history on the miso soup? thanks.

Janice, i'm not really aware of a miso soup history per se...i think it's been around as long as miso, which has been made for hundreds of years. Sorry i can't help more...

Hi Maki,
This site is great! I've meant to learn how to cook Japanese for a while and this is really inspiring! I've got a question, though, and it's a really stupid one. When you get a little bowl of miso with your meal in restaurants, are you meant to pick it up and drink straight from the bowl? I can't see what else I can do, but I wnodered if it was a horrific etiquette error!

Anna, that is not a stupid question at all, because I know Japanese food etiquette is rather differeent from European/Western style! Yes, you do pick up the bowl of miso soup, and drink straight from it. You pick up the little bits inside it with your chopsticks as you hold it too. I hope that helps!

Just found your blog today and I love it. Funny about the comment about steam coming out of the soup--I posted a picture of ozoni I made for New Year's on my blog and was pleasantly surprised to find that the steam shows up ever so slightly in the picture. You've got some fun pictures! Keep up the great work.

I would really like to get some MISO online....where can I do this, anyone?

I buy my miso at www.asianfoodgrocer.com

Actually, I buy almost all of my Japanese food there.

Check it out!
They don't only sell food either!

I love cooking Japanese food! I cook everyday since I met my boyfriend. The "basic" is the best, I believe. (I mean miso soup and rice)
My pics are not good like yours, but take a look if you have some time.

I just read your profile! Oh my!!! I used to live in NY, close to White Plains. I came back to Japan this year, and I understand your feeling that "you miss living in New York, except when you don't". NY is a nice place! I'm gonna visit there again this winter :)

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Thank you Maki, for taking the time to post something about such a "basic" thing. I sometimes find it's easier to find elaborate and time-consuming recipes on Japanese cooking than on simple, but have-to-know recipes like miso or dashi - recipes I personally think important when trying your hand at Japanese cuisine. Hopefully this will be my first step... I'm sipping it as I write and it's delish!

Hello, I have a stupid question. In the recipe for miso soup you say serve immediately. Does that mean that left-overs are no good. I tend to make hudge batches of soup at a time and eat it over a couple of days. Can I do this with miso soup (with the tofu and seaweed)?

Stephanie, miso soup really doesn't stand up too well to being reheated too many times, so it's mostly made in small batches. The ingredients - tofu, seaweed, etc. - also don't last too well (you can refrigerate it for a day or so).

I've seen recipes that use pieces of wakame or wakame flakes in place of your basic dashi stock. I was just wondering what the difference was between the wakame and the kombu?

Scott, using wakame in any form instead of dashi just won't do. Wakame is another form of seaweed, and when it's cooked it really doesn't have a huge amount of flavor - it's mainly used for its textrue. Kombu is a much thicker, leathery seaweed that has a lot of "umami" (flavor) in it; that together with bonito flakes or a form of small dried fish called niboshi is what makes dashi stock.

You would be better off using some instant dashi granules and adding wakame as a textural part of the miso soup.

Hi Maki,
I'm wondering how long miso keeps in the fridge, or how I might tell if it's past its prime.

I bought some a little while ago (or a little longer than that), but didn't get around to using it. I wanted to make miso soup tonight, but when I looked at the "best before" date, it was ambiguous. I don't know if the date is written year, month, day (which would mean my miso is very past the best before) or year, day, month (which would mean I have lots of time). The miso is imported. I'm actually a Canadian living in the US and this date thing always gets me since it's different in the two countries.

Renee, Japanese dates are written year, month date. However...I've found that miso does stand up very well if it's been stored in a cool place. It is a fermented and salty product, like soy sauce, and some is allowed to ferment for months before use. So...I'd say taste a little, and if it seems okay to you, go ahead and use it.

Maki!! k
*glomp* I luv your website!!! I am currently in love with all things japanese. Yup hooked on Manga, Anime, Tea >.< Oh and the candy!!! I can get some Japanese candy here since I live in Hawaii. Thank you Japanese tourrists!! Anyways this recipe is great. It tastes way better than the instant miso soup >.< Oh and if you love tons of cultures and how they mix together comme to HAWAII! Not as a tourist though. Just respect the locals and traditions and you might as well seem like a local ^.^' But its baisically a mixing pot of cultures. Like the saying 'baka tare' is used to call someone stupid or dumb. It is made up of japanese 'baka' and the philipino 'tare'...well I think thats how you spell it. ^_^' well e-mail me if you wish to talk more. And I'd love to have an in-depth conversation with you.

Hi Hana-chan. I haven't been to Hawaii yet (well, unless you count a one hour layover en route from mainland US to Japan) but I would love to go one day. I know a lot of Japanese immigrated there and there's a strong Japanese influence on the culture. Also I gotta see why Spam omusubi are popular :P Hawaiian food, and even Hawaiian-style Japanese food, are getting more known/popular in Japan these days too!

when was miso soup invented or come up with...THanks

Dear Anonymous,

I found info about miso's history on Wikipedia:

"The predecessor of miso originated in China during the 3rd century BC or earlier, and it is probable that this, together with related fermented soy-based foods, was introduced to Japan at the same time as Buddhism in the 6th century AD[1].This fermented food is called 'Shi'.

Until the Muromachi era, miso was made without grinding the soybeans, somewhat like natto (note from me: Natto is fermented soybeans). In the Kamakura era, a common meal was made up of a bowl of rice, some dried fish, a serving of miso, and a fresh vegetable. In the Muromachi era, Buddhist monks discovered that soybeans could be ground into a paste, spawning new cooking methods where miso was used to flavor other foods.

The Sengoku era, miso was useful as a military provision and precious nourishing food for soldiers. Making a miso was an important economic policy of Sengoku-daimyos in each place.

During the Edo period miso was also called hishio and kuki.
In the modern era, the industrial method of producing miso in large quantities was established and it became rare to make miso at home."

Cool huh? I didn't know the recipe was actually invented in China! No matter where it came from though it's been around a long time. :)

Umm...that anonymous comment was from more than a year ago :) But besides that, Wikipedia is not regarded as an authoritative source for anything (it's hit and miss). I do not doubt that there was (and still is) a form of fermented soy bean product in China, but it's a stretch to say that miso soup as we know it today was 'invented' anywhere. In all likelihood it has evolved over many centuries.

Correction, fermented soybean products still exist in China and they call "豆酱“ or "soy paste" it is made with whole soybeans like what it states in Wiki. Besides Wiki is a reliable source of information, just not a source of reliable information that will be used in studies and research.

I did not say fermented soybean products do not exist in China. I just questioned whether miso soup was 'invented' in China.

I have ONLY had miso soup at a restaurant back home in IL...The place is called Matsuri's.....and this recipe looks and seems simple enough for me to try to make at home so I can enjoy my second favorite soup! THANKS!!!!

I just made my first miso soup with firm tofu and thin onion slices. I simmered the onions in the dashi stock for about 5 minutes before adding the miso. Thanks for the tips!!

I just had a question. I noticed that you have 1/3 cup for 4 cups dashi. Is that correct? Other places I see use Tbsp. I just dont want to make this too strong. Thanks! I have made many of your other recipes and love them. Happy new year!

Kim

I can't believe it's taken me this long to find your site. I LOVE miso soup and have always wondered how to make dashi stock. I just followed your recipe this morning and it was fantastic - just what I was looking for. It was a little too 'smoky' tasting; too much bonito, but I know how to make it perfect next time. Thanks so much!!

I buy my miso at www.asianfoodsuperstore.com/country/japan.html

I buy almost all of my Japanese food there.

What I like is that they offer free shipping. Check it out!

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