Musings on Japanese Miso

November 15th, 2010By Category: Uncategorized

Not long ago I read a delightful piece in the L.A. Times that profiled a traditional koji-ya, or “mold maker.” Bizarre as it may seem, koji is the particular mold used to ferment rice and soybeans to make miso, among other things.

And this is where East and West diverge. For Westerners, especially those dining at what I’ll liberally call “Japanese” restaurants, their only exposure to miso is with the bland soup concoction served before their meal. For our dear koji-ya, miso is a “living food.” He blithely credits miso for Japan’s long life expectancy and suggests that, instead of spending your precious yen on a doctor, you should just consume more miso.

Sadly, miso—the seasoning—is just one among many intricacies of Japanese cuisine that fails to resonate on Western palettes dumbed down by hot sauce, cheap condiments, and a peculiar predilection to deep fry everything. Most diners simply gulp down their miso soup with their head craned toward the kitchen as they await the arrival of what passes for sushi. My Japanese friends tasting American miso soup typically scrunch up their noses and make squeamish gestures that portend imminent gastrointestinal upheaval (ie, throwing up).

Miso, as any enthusiast knows, comes in a variety of categories, including shiromiso (white), akamiso (red), and awasemiso (mixed). And—I know this is shocking!—there are profound differences in the way miso is used in Kanto and Kansai. Varieties of udon, ramen, nabe and more can be delightfully transformed and enhanced by miso seasoning.

If you’re reading this in Japan, be grateful of the richness at your fingertips and soon endeavor to seek out all that miso affords. And despair not if you reside in the West—most major cities host Japanese markets with authentic ingredients. In the meantime, itadakimasu!

Read more at Tokyo Lives.

Author of this article

Mark Hersberger

The “View from the West” column takes a light-hearted examination of all things Japanese through the prism of current events, pop culture, movies, books, and any other Japan-centric content Western audiences may come across. Mark Hersberger is an active Japan commentator and author of the mystery novel Tokyo Lives (see 'Website' link).

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  • Emily says:

    Man, a bit harsh on those in the west.  I love miso but this article was almost too pretentious to read!

  • I have tried a miso soups on Japanese restaurants around the city and though I have not had the traditional one from Japan, I still love it. Hopefully the time will come that I can experience it first hand, that way I can appreciate it more.