One of the great things about travelling around Japan is getting to sample the regional variations in the food. We had visited a miso/soy sauce factory in the western city of Kanazawa but, on our way, we had taken a detour to visit the snow monkeys at Yudanaka and also had the opportunity to visit the nearby town of Obuse in Nagano prefecture.
Obuse is a pretty little town with some interesting museums – notably an exhibition space dedicated to artist and printmaker Hokusai who was famous for his ukiyo-e (floating world) pictures from the Edo period. His best known work is probably The Great Wave off Kanakawa, one of the 36 views of Mount Fuji series. When we visited, they had on an exhibition which contrasted the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji with the One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji series.
We were pleased to discover that the town also had a shop dedicated to miso.
The delightful owners were very happy for us to sample their wares and it was great to be able to compare flavours of the different types on offer. We bought some packets of miso to take home with us.
We had long wanted to experiment with making miso but, while it’s easy to get hold of soy beans, obtaining rice koji is more difficult in the UK. We were able to buy some inoculated koji in Japan and have later discovered a number of suppliers in the UK and EU from whom koji can be obtained. We used pre-inoculated koji. If you are really hardcore, you can obtain the spores, then steam the rice and let the mould grow on it to create your own koji.
That is for another time though. We started with the simple approach using koji that we had bought in Kanazawa…
The best book in the world for learning how to make Japanese preserves, pickles and ferments is Nancy Singleton Hachisu’s Preserving the Japanese Way: Traditions of Salting, Fermenting, and Pickling for the Modern Kitchen. We have tried and tested loads of recipes from this book and can wholeheartedly recommend it. We followed the miso recipe.
Organic soy beans were soaked overnight and then boiled for a couple of hours until soft.
One thing we realised that we needed to obtain – a bit too late at this stage – was a proper blender. The soy beans were mashed by any means necessary – in the end a combination of a potato masher and hand blender produced the best results from all the available gadgets in the kitchen but the beans were still a bit chunky – we didn’t achieve a really smooth paste. But that was okay, miso doesn’t have to be totally smooth. In fact, chunky miso has a very pleasant nutty texture. But a blender was duly ordered for future use.
After the beans had cooled we mixed in the rice koji and salt – giving everything a really good squash together. It’s a very hands-on approach. (Make sure hands are clean, of course, a good way to do this is to spray them with white vinegar.)
Then you get a big container, in this instance we found some food-grade plastic tubs, which we cleaned thoroughly and wiped with (cheap) vodka, grab a ball of mixture and throw it into the container. You need to have a good aim. The point of the throwing is that the mix splats together and doesn’t allow air bubbles. It’s really important that the mix is compact. If your splatting ability isn’t as accurate as it could be, make sure you really pack the miso together afterwards – a good squish with your fists will help.
When the mixture is thoroughly squashed and compacted, sprinkle salt over the surface of the mixture, find some heavy weights and crush the miso to push it all together.
Then it’s simply a matter of time. Miso production in Japan is usually started in spring when temperatures are low. We started in April. The hot, humid summer is essential for the maturation of the miso and this is quite difficult to replicate in the UK, which has summers that can best be described as variable. However, we are lucky enough to have a greenhouse in our garden so our miso spent several days at a temperature that tried to emulate Japan’s summer heat although it didn’t get close to its oppressive humidity. It worked though – after the summer, on opening the lid we could definitely get that distinctive miso aroma. We knew we were on the right track.
We waited a few more months – until late October – and finally plucked up the courage to scrape the scary-looking surface of the miso and dive in.
An initial taste revealed it to be really delicious – salty and savoury with a heady aroma. We do a lot of food preservation via a lacto-fermentation process and are generally a bit scared of mould which is considered to be a Bad Thing. If food goes mouldy, it is dangerous and should be chucked. With the miso, the covering of the weight did develop some mould so we were cautious. But it hadn’t affected the food, so all was well.
It turned out that we had managed to ferment about 3kg worth! That will keep us going for a while. We carefully washed some old plastic tubs from takeaway food – these are brilliant for storage – decanted the miso from the tub and put it into the fridge for future use. As a fermented food, it should have a very good shelf life.
The first thing we made with the miso was soup – the traditional accompaniment to many Japanese meals. Our miso was so delicious that it was possible to make a nice drink by simply pouring boiling water onto the paste, mixing and devouring, but that was too crude an approach.
The very best miso soup starts with a dashi, which is a soup stock. There are several types of dashi. You can get instant powdered dashi and just add water but it’s really easy to make your own using ingredients that are generally easy to find from Asian supermarkets. The process is very simple and much quicker than traditional stock making in European cuisines, which generally require ingredients such as meat, vegetables and spices to be boiled for several hours. And it’s definitely worth the not very considerable effort.
Dashi usually only uses a couple of ingredients. The dashi we made used kombu (kelp – a seaweed) and katsuobushi (bonito flakes, which are skipjack tuna flakes that have been simmered and smoked, then dried in the sun to ferment and finally shaved to wafer thin slices). Katsuobushi, like many fermented fish products (think Thai nam pla – fish sauce), smells somewhat stinky and rather unpleasant when you open the packet, but somehow it adds a magical quality to the finished stock. Other dashi ingredients could include dried shiitake mushrooms or dried anchovies. Dashi definitely puts the “mmm” into umami.
We simmered kombu and bonito for 20 minutes, skimming off any froth from the surface of the broth. Then we sieved the broth and kept the solid materials. A bit like olive oil, this was the primary dashi, but it’s possible to resuse the dried base ingredients to make another dashi.
When the dashi is ready add a tablespoon of miso paste and bring to the simmer.
Miso soup usually has some additional ingredients such as negi (like spring onions), tofu, mushrooms or wakame seaweed.
You can find our detailed recipe for making miso soup here.
And here is a link to the highly recommended Preserving The Japanese Way book.
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