When my Japanese father-in-law travels abroad, the first thing he puts into his suitcase are small fish-shaped sachets of soy sauce, Cup Noodles, and several containers of instant miso soup. As the saying goes, you can take the man out of Japan, but you can't take Japan out of the man.
A precursor of miso arrived on the Japanese mainland from China sometime around 600 AD, not long after Buddhism. Its inhabitants have been enjoying it as misoshiru miso soup ever since, at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Made by mixing steamed daizu soybeans or other grains with koji fermenting agent and salt, miso is integral to any Japanese meal, where it is likely to be present as misoshiru or as a flavoring. It is also used in dengaku, where it is spread on vegetables such as nasu eggplant, tofu and konnyaku. It is also a regular feature in ramen broths, especially in Hokkaido, and residents of Nagoya love the stuff so much that they put it in just about everything.
There are three basic types of miso: the most common, komemiso made from rice; mamemiso made from soybeans, found along the Tokai coastline of Honshu; and mugi-miso a barley version popular throughout Kyushu except in Fukuoka, where they too make komemiso.
Misoshiru is made of a mixture of dashi stock and miso paste, and shellfish such as shijimi freshwater clams or asari short-necked clams; vegetables such as daikon giant white radish, ninjin carrot or gobo burdock root, especially good for the digestion; pork; or simply tofu.
In preparation miso should never boil, and is most often served with a topping of kizaminegi sliced welsh onion, mitsuba trefoil or myoga Japanese ginger. Good shijimi misoshiru combined with the aromatic pepper sansho is a heavenly combination, and is purportedly a good hangover cure.
It's a commonly held belief that you can recognize a person’s birthplace by their choice of miso. The dizzyingly salty Sendai miso of rural Miyagi Prefecture is a countryman’s creation. A gorgeous ruddy brown, it can be kept, and indeed matures with age. Shinshu miso from Nagano Prefecture in the Central Alps is less wild, less salty, with a much-praised slightly tart quality. Edo miso is dark, fiery red, slightly sweet, and is as forthright and resolutely unpretentious as the Edokko Tokyoites who are its main consumers.
Hatcho -miso has its own much-told history. It was initially created in the Hatcho area of Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, where it continues to be produced. It was shipped to Tokyo (then Edo) by the ruling elite Tokugawa clan. They came from the Okazaki area and, naturally, were proud of their hometown product. The Edokko were hugely underwhelmed, shipped it back, and developed their own style of miso.
Kyoto shiromiso is a sweet and aristocratic white miso that inhabits the rarefied world of Kyo-ryori Kyoto specialist cuisine. In particular, it is used in making ozoni, a miso soup containing mochi rice cakes.
When miso is not used in a soup, it is often used as dressing for aemono cooked leafy vegetables, poultry or fish blended with the dressing, and nimono simmered dishes. Combined with rice vinegar, white miso becomes sumiso. Both can accompany mountain vegetables and river fish.
Miso is an essential source of protein, calorie free, Buddhist and vegetarian-friendly, and packed with salt. It has also proven effective in treating radiation victims. One cannot help but wonder what thousands of Ukrainians thought on receiving hundreds of tons of the stuff from the Japanese government in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster.