Miso: An Ancient Solution For Modern Meals

Above, three types of miso, or fermented soybean paste commonly used in Asian cooking, are on display. i i

hide captionAbove, three types of miso, or fermented soybean paste commonly used in Asian cooking, are on display.

Eve Turow for NPR
Above, three types of miso, or fermented soybean paste commonly used in Asian cooking, are on display.

Above, three types of miso, or fermented soybean paste commonly used in Asian cooking, are on display.

Eve Turow for NPR

It was 8 p.m. I had told my friend to be over at 8:30 for dinner, and there I was, dripping sweat in my yoga gear, plowing through my front door with my day's work clothes and yoga mat in hand.

"What had I been thinking," I wondered, "offering dinner a half-hour after I return home?"

My options were limited. Thankfully, I was cooking for a friend who I knew would love me, bathed or not. So I decided to skip a shower and throw on a sweatshirt instead. Scurrying into the kitchen, I threw the freezer and refrigerator doors open. Frozen tilapia, check. A fresh vegetable, check. Now, what to do with the fish?

My eyes scoured the back of the fridge. Then I spied my ingredient, hiding under gochujang — a hot pepper paste — and a container of cream cheese: miso. My sister had once made me a miso-glazed fish, and taking the filets out to thaw, I attempted to re-taste the ingredients in my mind. Something sweet, I recalled, and something tangy. Miso, unlike many other flavoring components, has a strong taste and texture of its own. Feeling similar to nut butter on the tongue, it's exudes a distinct salty, funky aroma.

Miso is a fermented soybean paste. Though once uncommon in U.S. food stores, it is now available year round in several varieties. Miso ranges from light to dark, gaining flavor and intensity with the depth of its color. Some types are fermented with other grains: barley, rice and buckwheat, while others simply use the fundamental soybean.

The origins of miso trace back to the 700s B.C. in China, when fish bones and meat were used as the base. Soybeans became the main ingredient around 100 B.C. Miso, then known as jiang or "paste," was an essential condiment for pickling, keeping produce fresh for a longer period of time.

About The Author

Eve Turow is a native Chicagoan with a passion for cooking, eating and writing about food. You can follow Eve on her current journey through Southeast Asia on her blog.

Miso arrived in Japan around the same time as Buddhism, approximately A.D. 550. It also traveled throughout Southeast Asia, taking on different names and qualities as each culture adapted the recipe, becoming varieties of Korean jang, Indonesian taucho, Vietnamese tuong, Thai tao-chio and Malaysian tau-cheo. Homemade miso traditions gained a stronghold in northern Japan, eventually integrating soybeans as they did in China by following a 6th-century encyclopedia outlining the how-to's of miso-making. Today it is an essential element in Japanese cooking, especially in the well-known miso soup.

Miso has several health benefits: It is high in manganese, zinc, phosphorus and copper, along with protein and dietary fiber. In fact, one tablespoon of miso carries 2 grams of protein — sort of a "super condiment." It is also incredibly easy to store; just refrigerate it in an airtight container, and it can stay for up to a year.

During my evening of hasty dinner preparations, I was extremely thankful to see my container of miso patiently waiting for its next use in the corner of my fridge.

Scooping out a tablespoon of the paste, I plunked it into a dish. On top, I added some soy sauce and honey. Quickly whisking it all together, I dipped my pinky into the concoction to see if I had successfully re-created my sister's rendition. The bold flavors swirled around in my mouth — the ocean and honeycomb in one bite. Letting out a sigh of relief, I slathered the sauce on top of the fish filets and popped them into the oven to bake. Seven minutes later, my friend, Lauren, had arrived, and the fish was ready to eat.

Miso is a versatile ingredient that many shy away from. It is unfamiliar, with bold flavors and colors. If used correctly, however, miso can transform a piece of frozen fish into a delectable and elegant meal. It can complement meats, vegetables, even fruit. Many use it in salad dressings, blending the paste with ginger, carrots and oil. Used with sesame paste, it is an irresistible treat, almost like peanut butter, but, dare I say it, even better. Toss it with green beans, spinach, noodles — whatever you happen to have.

Sitting down to dinner, Lauren excused my attire and took a bite of the warm fish. "Mmmm," she said, "how did you do this?" I gave my sister the credit she was due and admitted that it had taken less than a half-hour.

When you continue to try new ingredients, there are endless wonderful dishes in your future, and miso is a good place to start. Since that night, I make sure to have miso in my refrigerator for last-minute dinner inspiration, allowing me to create unusual and creative dishes in a matter of minutes, whatever I'm wearing.

Miso-Glazed Halibut

This is the glaze I used when I made dinner for my friend, Lauren. Feel free to play around with the proportions of miso, soy and honey. You will get a different meal each time, slightly saltier or slightly sweeter.

Miso-Glazed Halibut i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Miso-Glazed Halibut
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes 2 servings

2 tablespoons white miso, any variety

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons honey

1 pound of halibut fillets

Sesame seeds (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a small bowl, whisk together the miso, soy sauce and honey, adding more honey if it's too salty for your taste. Brush the halibut fillets with the miso glaze. Place the fish on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil and bake for about 8 minutes or until white inside. When done, sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve hot.

Miso Ginger Salad Dressing

This is a simple dressing that is easy to put together. It is a healthy and bright addition to a meal.

Miso Ginger Salad Dressing i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Miso Ginger Salad Dressing
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes 1 cup

1 medium carrot, peeled and diced

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and diced

2 tablespoons white miso, any variety

Salt to taste

Place the diced carrot and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a food processor. Blend until smooth. Add remaining olive oil, vinegar, ginger and miso and blend again until all ingredients are smooth and blended together. Add salt if needed.

Grilled Miso-Glazed Flat Iron Steak

Simple and quick to assemble, this is a definite crowd pleaser with unusual flavors and a nice balance of sweet and salty.

Grilled Miso-Glazed Flat Iron Steak i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Grilled Miso-Glazed Flat Iron Steak
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1/2 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup sesame oil

1/4 cup hatcho miso (deep red)*

1/8 cup mirin*

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

2 cloves garlic, grated

1/4 cup light brown sugar

2 pounds flat iron steak

*Available in supermarkets, specialty food stores and/or Asian supermarkets.

Prepare the marinade by combining all ingredients but meat. Pour half of the marinade into a dish or plastic sealable bag, then place the steak on top and pour in the remaining marinade, covering the steak. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours. (If making this recipe with only an hour to marinate, save the marinade after removing the meat to later reduce and use as accompanying sauce).

Heat the outdoor grill to high, or if you have a thermometer, 400 degrees. When it is hot, place the steaks on the grill for approximately 4 minutes on each side. Let the meat rest on a plate or cutting board for at least 5 minutes before slicing. If you wish, take the reserved marinade and heat in a saucepan on high until it thickens. Pour into a gravy boat and serve with the steak. Slice steak 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick and serve hot.

Pan Roasted Asparagus, Poached Eggs And Miso Butter

This recipe is adapted from Momofuku by David Chang and Peter Meehan (Clarkson Potter 2009). I accidentally made it with hatcho miso instead of the intended lighter miso, and it was still wonderful. If using a more intense miso, I recommend cutting the portion in half. This is a great way to add a new twist on a traditional dish.

Pan Roasted Asparagus, Poached Eggs And Miso Butter i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Pan Roasted Asparagus, Poached Eggs And Miso Butter
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes 4 servings

1/2 cup shiro (sweet, white) miso

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more if needed

1/2 pound thin to medium asparagus

Kosher salt

2 teaspoons sherry vinegar

4 poached eggs*

Freshly ground black pepper

Combine miso with 5 tablespoons of butter in a small bowl and blend until well mixed. The butter should be one color. Set aside.

Prepare the asparagus by snapping off the bottom inch and peeling away the rough outer layer.

Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons butter in a wide skillet over medium-high heat. Line a plate with paper towels for draining the asparagus. When the butter begins to smoke, put the asparagus in the pan. (Be sure not to crowd the asparagus. Do it in two batches if necessary). When the asparagus start to take on some color, after 2 or 3 minutes, season them with a generous pinch of salt and turn the heat down to medium. Turn them with a spoon or spatula so they color on the second side, another few minutes. When the asparagus are nicely browned and tender (but not too soft), transfer them to the paper towels to drain.

While the asparagus is cooking, heat the sherry vinegar in a small saucepan over medium heat. After a half-minute, add the miso butter, turn the heat to low and stir to warm it through. When the butter has loosened slightly, but not quite melted, remove the pan from the burner and put it in a warm spot, preferably in a warming oven.

Season the cooked asparagus with another pinch of salt if needed. Smear a quarter of the warmed miso butter into a thick puddle in the middle of each plate. Divide the asparagus among the plates and top each with an egg. Finish each dish with a few turns of black pepper and serve at once.

* To poach an egg, bring a pot of water with a tablespoon of vinegar to a boil. Reduce heat and bring to a simmer. Gently crack egg into the water, cradling the egg with a wooden spoon. Let sit for 2 minutes, then remove from the pot and place on plate with paper towel to absorb excess water.

Dark Miso Soup With Sweet Potato

This recipe is adapted from Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen by Elizabeth Andoh (Ten Speed Press 2005). If you would like to make this even heartier, add leeks and mushrooms. As written, it is a perfect starter dish.

Dark Miso Soup With Sweet Potato i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Dark Miso Soup With Sweet Potato
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes 4 servings

1 small sweet potato, about 5 ounces, cut into 1/4-inch pieces, peeled and soaked

4 cups seafood stock, preferably fresh*

1 teaspoon soy sauce

Splash of sake

4 to 6 chives, finely minced

2 tablespoons dark miso, preferably hatcho miso

1/4 cup tightly packed katsuo-bushi**

*Available at local fish markets

**Katsuo-bushi is dried, fermented and smoked fish, available in specialty Asian food stores.

Place the potato pieces and stock in the pot and bring slowly to a simmer over low heat. Skim away any froth that appears. Season with the soy sauce and sake, and continue to simmer for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the potatoes are barely tender (test with a toothpick; it should meet no resistance).

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the vegetables to individual soup bowls, dividing them evenly. Garnish each portion with the chives.

Just before serving, place the miso in a bowl with a few tablespoons of the warm broth, mixing it together to loosen the miso. Hatcho miso is especially thick, so it may take some extra effort to dissolve it. Add the miso to the stock.

Remove the pot from the heat and sprinkle in the katsuo-bushi flakes, scattering them across the surface. The fish flakes will sink as they become drenched with broth. Stir 30 to 40 seconds. Strain the soup through a coffee-filter-lined strainer or a very fine mesh strainer into the bowl holding the sweet potato pieces and chives, dividing it evenly. Discard the fish flakes. Serve the soup immediately.

Green Beans With Creamy Sesame-Miso Sauce

This recipe is adapted from Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen by Elizabeth Andoh (Ten Speed Press 2005). The sauce can be tossed with any green, or even used as a dip for carrots and cucumbers.

Green Beans With Creamy Sesame-Miso Sauce i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Green Beans With Creamy Sesame-Miso Sauce
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 1/2 tablespoons white sesame paste*

1 1/2 tablespoons shiro (sweet, white) miso

Salt, to taste

1 1/2 tablespoons seafood stock or water**

16 ounces green beans

1 1/2 tablespoons white sesame seeds (optional)

*Available in Asian grocery stores. It is called shiro neri goma, or smooth white sesame paste.

** Available fresh at local fish markets or packaged in grocery stores

In a bowl, mix the sesame paste with the miso, stir with wooden spoon or whisk to blend completely. Taste, and if it seems too sweet, adjust the seasoning with salt. Blend by hand again until smooth. Thin the mixture with stock or water, one spoonful at a time. Set aside.

Clean the green beans, snapping off the ends. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil, add the beans and cook for 1 minute or until bright green. Drain the beans then let cool at room temperature.

Toss the green beans in the sesame-miso sauce just before serving and garnish with sesame seeds.

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