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Mastering Miso's Mysteries

Every fall, in the midst of one of my optimistic fits of self-renewal, I buy a jar of miso. This fermented paste of soybeans and grains, which is a staple in the Japanese larder, has origins as cloudy as the soup it makes. Many scholars, however, believe it was first used in China more than 2,000 years ago, and that it was brought to Japan, along with Buddhism, in the 6th century.

While there may be some question about its origins, miso is indisputably ancient and revered -- even Confucius wrote about it. But it's also mysterious, at least to me. It is made with rice, barley or rye. It can be salty or sweet, mild or rich, dark or light. There are hundreds of misos out there. Plus, it's heat-sensitive. It loses aroma and healthful enzymes if boiled. If it's so confusing, why bother?

Because not only does it taste great, it's virtuous. Some claim miso neutralizes the effects of smoking and radiation, discourages the growth of cancer, and breaks down cholesterol. Others say it preserves beautiful skin and counteracts the effects of aging. If even a couple of these are true, we should certainly eat more of it.

And so every fall, I'm off to the store to buy some kind of miso made with some kind of grain that I sincerely hope I'll figure out how to use sometime soon.

I then leave the newly purchased jar in the refrigerator for an unspecified amount of time, remember it, dig it out, check for an expiration date, don't find one, wonder whether something that's already fermented can go bad, then throw it out.

Hope, however, springs eternal, which is why I once again have a jar shoved unceremoniously into the back of my fridge. This time it's handcrafted, 3-year-old, organic barley miso, wood-fired, unpasteurized and based on a recipe from the Japanese farmhouse tradition. It sounded good, so I bought it.

A year ago.

This time, though, when I "discovered" it in my refrigerator, instead of chucking it and buying a new jar, I contacted Elizabeth Andoh, renowned Japanese food expert and author of Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen (Ten Speed Press 2005) and asked for help.

Not surprisingly, she was horrified to hear of my wasteful ways. It turned out my current jar was from South River Miso based in Massachusetts, which, Andoh informed me, makes some of the best miso available in the United States. And I was ready to throw it out? "We have to change that," she said firmly, then gave me a quick primer (see left).

After talking with Andoh, I finally understood that miso is nothing to fear. It's just a condiment. I was now in the driver's seat on the miso bus.

It turns out that the dashi, or stock, is incredibly easy, and from there, making miso soup with Andoh-recommended shiro miso is an absolute cinch. In fact, I was feeling so self-confident, I made a second batch at the last minute, riffing on the basic recipe by finally using the miso that had been aging in my fridge for the past year and adding some diced, leftover roasted vegetables. (Andoh later told me that in Japan, sweet potatoes and carrots are usually paired with darker hatcho miso, whereas I had used mellower mugi miso, but, not knowing any better, my family and I liked it anyway.)

I wound up with two gorgeous, delicious miso soups, plus a killer salad dressing that couldn't have been easier to whip up. I had a little swagger in my step as I carried my Japanese version of soup and salad to the table.

I won't be throwing out any more jars.

Read last week's Kitchen Window.

Get more recipe ideas from the Kitchen Window archive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Betsy Block