Having been sick most of last week, and given the arctic wonderland we’ve been experiencing (thanks, Canada) my mind naturally turns to soup. Jewish penicillin is but a deli delivery away, though it isn’t the same unless mom makes it for you. Far easier, and just as good, is Japanese penicillin—miso soup.
Ok, I just made up the part about it being “Japanese penicillin.” It’s actually more like Japanese coffee. You’ll find it at practically every meal, and a traditional breakfast is just miso soup and rice. I’ve never tried that (I’m more of a cereal guy) but I could see how it might be an invigorating start to the day.
A real miso soup isn’t just miso paste and boiled water. You can play with ingredients, adding potatoes, carrots, and/or mushrooms. Even wheat gluten (mmm, good). Or you can stick with the classics- tofu, wakame (a kind of sea-vegetable, yes, vegetable, they’re too tasty to be weeds), and topped with scallions.
But first, you’re going to have to make the simplest, tastiest, Japanesiest preparation of all. Dashi. A clear, subtly flavored stock, dashi is generally made of only two basic ingredients, kastsuo-bushi (shavings of dried bonito, a type of mackerel, sold either pre-shaved or, in the old country, petrified wood form) and konbu (dried kelp). Dashi is fundamental to all Japanese cooking, used to season many different soups and other dishes.
In Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, Shizuo Tsuji writes, “It can be said without exaggeration that the success or failure (or mediocrity) of a dish is ultimately determined by the flavor and quality of the dashi that seasons it.”
All this, and, well, I never bothered trying to make the real thing. You can buy powders that approximate the flavor after dissolving in water, or packets of ready-to-go miso soup that also work. Don’t believe it. Dashi is simple, and it makes you feel good.
You can try doing it with just the bonito. And even some restaurants leave it at this. But as it turns out, there’s no substituting for kombu. The touch of ocean and extra body it adds to the broth is anything but subtle.
The reason? Kombu is covered (literally) in naturally occurring monosodium glutamate. Yes, MSG is found in nature. It’s miraculous. Lacking in flavor of its own, it makes other flavors somehow fuller and meatier. The Japanese term for this flavor is umami, meaning “deliciousness.” And don’t think you can skip kelp and avoid glutamic acid (natural MSG). Tomatoes and mushrooms, as well as other products, are full of the natural scourge too. They’ve even proven that your tongue has a specific receptor for the stuff, so get over it.
Then, there’s miso itself. Grain or legume (rice, barley, or soybean) cooked and fermented with a koji starter and soybeans, then allowed to sit for months to years, and you have it. The end product features varying levels of color and flavor, from white shiro miso to red aka miso to black, sweet to salty and roasted. At least a dozen kinds. Use what you like depending on the purpose. It’ll keep refridgerated for at least a year if not more. Miso soup is generally best made with a red or mixed red-white miso.
Fun fact: For many centuries, Harold McGee notes, in China and Japan, miso was used as the main flavor agent. Soy sauce was just a by-product of making miso with too much liquid. It wasn’t until the 17th century in Japan that soy displaced miso, though it did so earlier in China.
Here’s the miso I use. It’s more expensive, but there’s no additives and it’s closer to the traditional, rustic product it should be. You can find it at Fairway and other groceries and health food stores. Also, the flavor is so good you could just use it as-is as a (rather intense) dip.
Miso Soup (with Dashi)
Time: 15 minutes
4 cups water
1 4 or 5 inch piece of kombu
1/4 cup katsuo-bushi (bonito flakes)
2 tablespoons miso paste
1/2 pound soft tofu, cut into small cubes
1 scallion, minced finely
1 teaspoon dried wakame sea vegetable
- Pour cold water into a medium pot and put in the kombu. Heat slowly (about 10 minutes) until just boiling, then remove kombu. If you can pierce it with your nail, it’s done. If you can’t, put it back in for a couple minutes. Reduce heat to very low.
- Put katsuo-bushi into a tea ball, cheese cloth tied tight, or just directly (strain later).
- Let it sit for a minute or so, then remove or strain.
- You now have dashi.
- Put miso in a separate bowl, adding a few tablespoons of hot stock, then whisk until smooth. This keeps it from getting chunky in the pot.
- Stir smooth miso liquid into the stock.
- Add remaining ingredients, such as tofu, scallion, wakame. Heat for about a minute, then serve.
Other ingredients: Mushrooms (shitake, nameko), spinach, potatoes, carrots, zucchini. Pre-cook and add at last step.
Fun fact two: the clouds swirling in a bowl of miso? That’s convection- the hot broth rises, hits the top, cools and falls, taking with it particles of miso. If it looks familiar, that’s because it is. By the same physics, thunderheads grow in the sky.
Original post – 1/30/09, 3pm