The Mysteries of Miso

by Susan Spann

Many Westerners consider “miso” synonymous with “soup,” primarily because many of us had our first introduction to this Japanese specialty in that form. In the United States in particular, miso soup has become a familiar offering in Japanese restaurants and sushi bars.


But miso isn’t just for soup.

Miso is actually a traditional form of seasoning made by fermenting grain or soybeans with a specific fungus (Aspergillus oryzae, or, in Japanese, kojikin). Kojikin is a filamentous fungus … essentially, a mold … which humans first turned to domestic use over 2,000 years ago.

In its newly-fermented form, miso is a thick paste which can be used to season various kinds of food. When mixed with soup stock (usually a fish-based stock called “dashi”), miso takes the form of the miso soup so many of us have eaten in Japanese restaurants.

The earliest reported use of miso in Japan dates to the Jōmon period (14,000 B.C.-300B.C.). Back then, it was known as “hishio” – a word which refers to salty seasonings made from grain, sometimes with the addition of fish or fish paste.

“Miso” as we know it today (or approximately the miso we know and love, anyway) dates to the Muromachi period – the era of Medieval Japanese history when shoguns, and their samurai retainers, ruled Japan.

During the medieval era, Japanese monks started grinding the soybeans before fermentation, a change which ultimately resulted in the paste-like miso we know today.

14G Miso

Miso varies fairly widely in taste, aroma, and texture, but all miso falls into one of three basic varieties: red, white, and “mixed”(which is composed of red and white in varying proportions). Much of the miso Westerners taste is made from soybeans (the most common type) but miso can also be made from grains, including millet, wheat, rice, and barley (just to name a few).

Red miso has a stronger taste than the white miso most Westerners consider the “standard” form. For that reason, many people need to develop a taste for the red and mixed varieties, by trying them in smaller amounts or by tasting them repeatedly over time.

Like yoghurt, miso contains live cultures and loses some of its health benefits when overcooking kills the cultured organisms. For that reason, miso is often added after or near the end of the cooking process. This differs from other seasonings, which usually get added early on. In the case of miso, however, the benefits of living cultures outweigh the extra flavor that results from early addition.

And now you know a little more about miso.


Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, released on July 15, 2014, from Minotaur Books.

Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

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