By Cary Neff, Experience Life
In Japan, making miso — a basic cooking ingredient and condiment that’s aged like wine and cheese — is an art. But that doesn’t mean it’s complicated to prepare or eat. A good alternative to straight salt, miso is a snap to use in soups, sauces, spreads, salad dressings, dips and marinades.
Miso is a fermented soybean paste, or sometimes a rice or barley paste, that is similar in consistency to nut butters.
Savory, complex, rich and salty, miso is considered a umami flavor. (Umami is the fifth flavor — after sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Learn more about it in “The Secret Flavor,” from our July/August 2009 archives.) Miso comes in a variety of colors and variations: Red miso has a rich, savory, salty flavor; light yellow miso is less salty with a subtle tartness and smooth texture; and white miso features a more delicate flavor. You see this variety because some misos — in addition to their base of legumes or grains, and the mold, called koji, added to ferment them — can contain brown rice, white rice, barley, wheat, buckwheat or ginger. Miso’s flavors also become more complex over time; “bean paste” may be fermented for months or years. You can find miso — which is sold refrigerated in a plastic or glass jar, a sealed bag, or in bulk — in Japanese and natural food markets and, increasingly, in conventional grocery stores.
One tablespoon of miso provides 2 grams of easy-to-digest protein and a rich array of probiotic (healthy) bacteria. Miso is also a good source of tryptophan, which helps the body synthesize that protein; manganese, an enzyme activator; zinc, critical to the immune system; and manganese and copper, which are essential for antioxidant functioning and energy production. It’s of particular value for vegetarians because it’s high in vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids (primarily found in animal sources). Miso is high in sodium, though, so don’t go overboard with it as a seasoning.