Fermented soybean paste originated in China but found its most enthusiastic following in Japan, where it’s known as miso (MEE-soh). Miso was part of the diet that reportedly led to samurai strength, and to this day Japanese cooks would sooner fall on the proverbial sword than dispense with this fundamental ingredient.
Miso’s taste is variously described as earthy, salty, sweet, buttery, nutty, robust, pungent and complex. Incredibly versatile, it serves as a foundation or flavoring in soups, marinades, sauces and vegetable dressings.
Miso is made by combining soybeans with a grain-based fermenting agent and enough salt to retard spoilage. For general purposes, it’s classified by color. Light (also called yellow, white or shiro) miso is quickly fermented and lighter in flavor. Dark (also called red or aka) miso is saltier and more complex.
Experiment with miso by stirring it into broth for a warming soup. Mix equal parts of miso and toasted sesame seeds, thin with a little water or stock, and toss with steamed carrots, green beans or spinach. Combine miso with lemon zest and a drizzle of honey to brush on fish for broiling.
Look for miso in refrigerated sections of natural food stores, Asian markets or well-stocked groceries. Refrigerated, it will practically outlast a dynasty. If you do encounter a whitish or greenish mold, scrape it off, and use remaining paste quickly. Pink-tinged molds are another matter—best to toss that tub and replace it.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.