Kitchen Window — Miso: An Ancient Solution For Modern Meals The fermented soybean paste long used in Asian cooking is now commonly found in U.S. food stores. With its bold flavors and colors, a dollop of miso can help transform simple ingredients into an unusual, delectable and elegant meal in a matter of minutes.

Miso: An Ancient Solution For Modern Meals

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

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Eve Turow for NPR

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.