Miso soup is hardly a summer meal, I think. It’s too warm, too deeply flavorful in a salty way, and typically has a darker countenance that I associate more with cooler, winter days than the bright greens, the colorful pinks, oranges and rainbow hues of summer. It is soup, after all. The saving grace, though, in the Bay of CA, from those hot, arid days of June past, is our cool nights that drop precipitously, from 6-8pm, from the upper 80s down into the 60s. On these nights, miso soup is certainly more than welcome, and it takes advantage of the funny fact that I always have a jar of miso paste on hand. Plus, miso soup, once you learn its foundations, requires no skill at all to make a perfect batch. Yes, even college-age boys of ramen noodles and garlic powder – the cheap, rancid type packaged in the nondescript red bottle – can make a decent miso soup.
I, for one, enjoy the more robust, dark misos, the ones that turn your soup into a witch’s brew of black, brackish liquid punctuated with mossy bacteria blooms. They have a much different taste from the lighter misos due to their heavier reliance on soybeans and barley instead of white rice, but since white miso is the mainstay of most Japanese restaurants, that is the flavor we associate generically with miso. Miso, as it turns out, it a highly variable substance, aged and revered in a fashion similar to wine, with four common varieties of white, red, barley and soybean, that are all made from a special mold: Aspergillus Oryzae, often referred to in tandem with the blanket term koji, a steamed grain or soybean that has Aspergillus mold spores cultivated onto it. During the production of koji these Aspergillus molds produce enzymes that break down proteins and carbohydrates, in a process similar to sake and other Japanese beverage-making. The white-ish color of white miso is obtained by using a lot of rice koji (about 60%) and fewer soybeans. Of all miso varieties, white miso contains the most carbohydrates and therefore tastes the sweetest, often referred to in macrobiotics as the “dessert miso,” despite it being the most popular for miso soup here in the United States. Because of its higher carbohydrate content, the fermentation is very quick and only takes a few weeks; the downside is its shelf-life is limited to only one or two weeks at room temperature, or a mere 2 months when refrigerated.
Red miso, by contrast, is made from white rice, barley or soybeans with a one to three year fermentation time. Due to the smaller ratio of white rice and higher concentration of barley, this miso is red to brownish in color, and contains the highest levels of protein out of all the misos. Do not let the brown color fool you into thinking brown rice was used – it’s always white rice, no matter the miso. The thick endosperm of brown rice is difficult for the koji mycelium to penetrate, making it easier for other bacteria, including the food-spoiling leuconostic, to contaminate the batch. The third type, barley miso, is arguably the heartiest, with a thick, salty taste and a very dark color, made only from barley and soybeans and no rice. Soybean miso, as apparent from its name, is composed only of soybeans – this higher protein content requires a fermentation period of at least one year, in giant vats made from cypress, redwood or fir.
A special type of soybean miso is Hatcho miso. The koji for Hatcho miso contains a special mold: Aspergillus hatcho instead of the usual Aspergillus oryzae. Hatcho miso is considered the miso of emperors for its long – at least 16 months and up to 4 years – aging time, and strict use of only soybeans and little water – a tradition that has been unchanged for nearly 500 years. True hatcho miso (made by the Hatcho Miso Company in Okazaki, Japan) is 80% richer in protein and contains up to 25% less salt than similarly aged rice and barley based misos. It is also the most expensive, given the lack of grains. Hatcho miso is renowned among traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners for having the most anti-carcinogenic effects, and for being the most effective at clearing heavy metals from the body, lowering cholesterol, detoxifying blood, and aiding in digestion (due to its high levels of lactic acid). All misos, however, undergo fermentation and are thus great sources of essential amino acids, minerals, and vitamins, while being low in calories and fat.
Since I regularly shop at Whole Foods and Trader Joes, local markets here and there, my miso options are fairly limited to two brands: Great Eastern Sun Master Miso Country Barley Miso and Westbrae Natural Organic White or Red Miso. Westbrae makes a fine miso, and I typically buy their red miso, but I recently started using the Country Barley Miso with great results. In my research, there are many people who advocate using the white and red misos for soup only, reserving the richer barley miso for meat marinades, rubs, or anything thick and hearty; but given that most of these people are as white and non-Japanese as can be, probably raised on a diet of white miso in local restaurants, I decided to try my hand at a richer miso, under the guidance of a Macrobiotic cookbook. Turns out, I couldn’t have made a better choice.
I’m sure by now you’ve surmised that the miso soup in question for this post relies on the Barley Miso varietal, rather than an inclusion of the barley grain in the soup. Barley could very well be an excellent addition to miso soup – I usually add brown rice to mine – but for this recipe I kept it fairly simple, since this country miso paste is strong, indeed, tasting almost better on its own. I added Udon noodles not so much for their flavor, but for their ability to swell up with broth, lending to the broth’s flavor their own chewy, slurptastic bite. I typically enjoy Soba noodles for their better nutrition, but their thick, almost gelatinous buckwheat taste is all too powerful on its own – I couldn’t have two, overbearing flavors marauding, and vying for attention in the same cauldron. A few thin slices of zucchini, sesame seeds, and thin rounds of cucumber added some aesthetic vitality, not to mention subtle, complementary tastes. To spice up tradition a bit, I veered away from the traditional kombu and bonito stock base in favor of a quick saute of minced celery in sesame oil, with the addition of water and kombu to simmer into a base (a tip from my macrobiotic cookbook). You can even get away with only using celery in those times when you find yourself plumb out of luck, with no kombu and bonito in sight -
a plight, I’m sure, that falls on many an American kitchen.
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Barley Miso Soup with Udon
Udon Noodles (only use 1/4 of whatever package you buy), boiled and drained
2 zucchini, thinly sliced or julienned
2 stalks celery, in small cubes
6 thin cucumber slices
1 strip kombu
7 cups water
1/3 cup barley miso
Heat a dash of sesame oil in a large soup pot and sautee the celery bits until soft, but not brown, about one minute. Add one cup of water along with the kombu and let simmer, on low heat, for a few minutes, just enough to release some of the kombu’s digestive qualities and flavors (I simmer for no more than 7 minutes). Add the rest of the water and let it heat through on higher heat, then add in the zucchini, letting the flavors meld in a simmer. Once the zucchini is nice and soft, cooked through, ladle out some hot broth into a bowl over 1/3 cup of the barley miso, whisking well to dissolve. Add this mixture back into the pot, being careful not to boil from here on out – all of those delicate probiotics and other beneficial bacteria and nutrients in miso are destroyed by any heavy heating. Once the miso has heated for another minute or two, add in the udon noodles, a sprinkling of sesame seeds, and toss in the cucumber rounds. Ladle into some pretty bowl and enjoy while hot.