Japanese miso can deliver great health benefits — and of course, everyone wants those. However, not all miso is created equal. Inexpensive miso made from low-quality ingredients through an automated process has little nutritional value and may be laden with chemicals. When you look at the traditional way of making miso, you can see why.
The most popular miso is made from rice, soybeans, salt, spring water and koji, the fermentation starter. Koji, aspergillus oryzae, is a type of mold. When mixed with steamed rice, it breaks down the carbohydrates into simple sugars. The resulting koji rice is mixed with cooked soybeans, sea salt and pure spring water. This mixture is then left in wooden barrels to ferment naturally. Dark brown miso, or aka-miso (often known as “red miso”), can take more than one year to ferment properly. During this period, the koji is assisted by hundreds of species of bacteria living in the wood of the barrels. They produce peptides and amino acids, organic acids and other nutrients, giving the miso its wonderful flavor and nutritional value.
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But all that work pays off for the cook, because using good-quality miso produces wonderful-tasting dishes with little effort. Good miso contains lots of umami, savory flavor, enhancing all the other ingredients you use. In contrast, miso made in an automated factory substitutes artificial flavoring for the rich layers of flavor in the traditional product.
But American cooks don’t have to order a shipment of Japanese miso from abroad to get the real experience: Several American companies are now making very high quality, traditionally produced miso. On a day when I did not have time to walk 20 minutes to the Japanese food store, I discovered the American-made Miso Master brand at my neighborhood large chain supermarket in New York City. In my kitchen, this miso really surprised me. It had the quality and taste characteristics that I had long yearned for.
Japanese tradition comes to America
I was curious to find out how my favorite miso was made in America. So I headed to Great Eastern Sun, the North Carolina-based company that has been making Miso Master miso for 33 years. In 1979, when American interest in macrobiotic products was booming, John and Jan Belleme, the early partners of the company, traveled to Japan to investigate natural miso production. A small miso brewer, Takamichi Onozaki, in Yatai, a village in Tochigi Prefecture northeast of Tokyo, opened his arms and factory to the Bellemes and taught them the art of traditional miso production. Upon returning to America, they built the Great Eastern Sun factory in the village of Rutherfordton, 55 miles east of Asheville.
On my visit to the factory I found the same qualities that I had found at the miso factory in Japan: far from the city, with clean water, pure air and people who cared about producing high-quality food. Great Eastern Sun picked Rutherfordton not only because of the qualities of nature and people, but also because it sits at the same latitude as the village of Yatai in Japan.
A Japanese miso master, Joe Kato, oversees production of the miso, which uses all organic and non-GMO ingredients. In the large processing room, six local American employees were working on koji rice. The rice had been steamed the day before, inoculated with koji mold and left spread on a large wooden stand in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room. The workers were breaking up and turning the koji rice, which released a sweet, slightly chestnut-like fragrance. When I closed my eyes I felt as if I were standing in my friend’s miso factory in Japan. But soon the workers’ jokes and chatting in English brought me back to where I was.
Below you will find a very simple, but delicious recipe with which you can try real miso to enjoy a healthy diet. You may have had the somewhat boring typical miso soup at a Japanese restaurant, featuring wakame seaweed, tofu and scallion. This spicy kale miso soup recipe shows that you can use any seasonal vegetable from your refrigerator to make an excellent miso soup. You can find many more delicious uses for miso – dressings, marinades, sauces and more –in my book, “Hiroko’s American Kitchen.”
Spicy Kale Miso Soup
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 8 minutes
Total time: 18 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
½ bunch kale
1 teaspoon canola oil
½ cup chopped red onion
¼ cup finely julienned ginger
¼ teaspoon toban jiang (fermented chile bean sauce) or red pepper flakes
3 cups dashi stock or low-sodium chicken stock
1½ tablespoons aged brown miso from Miso Master or other high-quality miso producer
- Cut off the very bottom of the hard stems of the kale, and cut the remaining kale, including the stems, into thin slices crosswise.
- Heat the oil in a medium pot over medium heat, and then add the onion. Cook the onions for 1 minute, stirring until they are slightly translucent. Add half of the ginger and the toban jiang, and give the mixture several stirs. Add the kale and cook, stirring, until the leaves are wilted.
- Pour in the stock and bring it to a simmer. Decrease the heat to low and cook, covered, for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat.
- Add the miso, stirring briskly with a whisk until it is dissolved.
- Divide the soup into small soup bowls, garnish with the remaining ginger and serve.
Main photo: Workers tend the koji rice at Great Eastern Sun’s facility in Rutherfordton, North Carolina. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo