Japanese Misoshiru is a savory but delicate soup that is an essential part of Japanese dining.
According to The Book of Tofu & Miso, 75% of Japanese eat miso soup every single day. Miso<<shiru (味噌汁) can be purchased pre-mixed in a packet or you can make it from scratch (We will show you how!). In Japan you can purchase freeze-dried miso soup that re-hydrates when boiling water is added; the resulting taste and texture is remarkably good. Although it is simple to make, the techniques for creating some of the basic ingredients require a great deal of technique, effort and time.
The soup base, known as dashi (出汁), is flavored with miso paste, bonito (skip jack tuna) flakes and konbu (昆布) seaweed. Not only is it a key ingredient in miso soup but it is found in an enormous number of other Japanese soups and foods. The base used for miso soup is called "konbu katsuo dashi" after its two main ingredients, konbu and katsuobushi which I will discuss below. Growing up in America, people learn there are four basic tastes; sweet, sour, bitter and salty. However, in 1908 Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda suggested there was a fifth taste which he called umami (meaning "pleasant savory taste"). Further scientific research backed this claim with the discovery of taste receptors specific to glutamate. Ikeda originally studied the konbu seaweed, but discovered that glutamate was found in a wide variety of foods including tomatoes, wheat, shell fish. soy, meats, and more. Ikeda also extracted glutamates from konbu and called his "flavor enhancer" "Aji no Moto" which we know as monosodium glutamate or MSG. Many Chinese dishes also use MSG, and while many non-Asian people claim to have bad reactions to it (headaches, flushing, weakness, etc.) and while the Mayo Clinic website claims "Researchers have found no definitive evidence of a link between MSG and these symptoms." Much like gluten, many food packages and restaurant menus proudly proclaim "No MSG". We will leave it up to the readers whether these adverse claims are warranted or simply marketing ploys directed towards the overly cautious.
Most people who make their own miso soup use dashi powder which is a ground mixture of bonito, some seaweed and often aji no moto (MSG). The addition of MSG to dashi power simply adds more umami flavor to the dashi, and is not used when making dashi from scratch. Adding extra MSG to dashi might be a case of gilding the lily.
Miso is fermented soybean paste, however it typically has other ingredients, most notably rice and barley. "White miso" (shiro miso, 白味噌) is lightest in color and mildest in taste, having more rice and a shorter fermentation than "red" (Aka, 赤味噌) miso. Due to its pleasing color and delicate taste, shiro miso is preferred for miso soup, but some recipes (particularly English-language recipes) call for the stronger tasting variety. Miso has a great variety of uses, but by far its most popular use is for miso soup.
While making miso requires little preparation on the part of the cook, the creation of the bonito flakes flakes, or katsuobushi (鰹節), is a long, involved interesting process. Fortunately all this is done for you, you just need to open the bag and use the amount required! Traditionally a skip jack tuna is beheaded, gutted, filleted and trimmed of fat. The fish is boiled for more than an hour and then the bones are removed. The fish is then smoked very slowly for 5 to 6 hours, then the fish is left to cool and rest for a day. This process is repeated for the same fish more than a dozen times, the total time being up to a month. The filets are then sprayed with Aspergillus glaucus mold culture and left in a cave (most traditionally) or in a cold room. This process draws all the moisture out of the fish and greatly concentrates their flavor. The mold is then scraped off and the process is repeated two to three times. The number of times this process is repeated determines the type of katsuobushi. If it is done three times it is called honkarebushi (本枯節) (true dried fillet). The most expensive katsuobushi is dried using this process for as long as two years. The result is a fish that has the same hardness as a very hard wood. Traditionally the fish is shaved with a Katsuobushi kezuriki (鰹節削り器), a wooden box fitted with a razor sharp blade. The shavings are pink in color, extremely thin and translucent. Katsuobushi is often added to other Japanese dishes and when they are sprinkled on top of hot dishes, such as soups, the rising steam makes the much-thinner-than-paper flakes "dance". It is a sight to behold and enjoy. However, if you add katsuobushi to your dishes, be careful because a little goes a very long way. Don't overdo it!
In addition to the bonita flavoring and the miso, a large piece of seaweed known as konbu is added to the stock. It comes in large leaves, you must cut it to fit in the pot. Good konbu has a whitish powder on it's surface. At least one Internet video suggests wiping this power off with a wet towel. That recommendation is suspect, the white powder actually is important to the depth of the taste. Most konbu is harvested in the cold ocean waters of Japan's northernmost island, Hokkaido. The home of katsuobushi is in the southeastern region of the main island of Honshu and there has been a vital trade route from Hokkaido to the south since the early 17th century.
Miso soup can contain many different ingredients, however, tofu, wakame (ワカメ) dried seaweed and Japanese enokitake (榎茸) or "enoki" mushrooms are, by far, the most popular. Tofu comes in soft, medium and firm styles. Perhaps soft tofu is the most traditional for miso soup, but this is really up to the preference of the cook. Wakame dried seaweed is true magic. Before it is added to the soup it is in the form of very small dried bits. A minute after it is in the soup it becomes a silky marvel that tastes great and has a very nice texture. When I didn't have any wakame, I've tried making the soup with spinach, and indeed some English language recipes suggest this. However, unless you have a miso soup emergency (Heaven forbid!), resist this idea as the results will pale in comparison to the real stuff.
The last ingredient is enoki mushrooms, which are sold in a bunch. Their stems are long and thin and their heads are small as a green pea. They have a delicate taste and texture. Other mushrooms can be substituted, but results may be less desirable.
Japanese cuisine is based on an esthetic that appreciates not only the taste of a dish but its presentation and texture. Good miso soup looks, tastes and feels like a work of culinary art when done properly.
All the ingredients for this soup can be purchased at Mitsuwa Market or any other Japanese food market.
- 5 cups of water
- 1 ounce of konbu seaweed
- 1/2 ounce of katsuobushi bonita flakes
- 3 tablespoons wakame seaweed
- 6 level tablespoons shiro miso (white miso)
- 1/3 of a package of enoki mushrooms
- 6 ounces of tofu (half a standard package)
Cook's note: Unfortunately, most of the ingredients for this recipe are sold in amounts that are much more than needed for this recipe which serves 6. The konbu, katsuobushi, wakame and the miso keep very well, but the mushrooms and tofu should be used within a week's time to avoid spoilage. Usually (not always) tofu is packed in water and must be refrigerated after the package is open. Tofu will last considerably longer if you store it in water and change the water daily. Please note that this recipe generally has more solid ingredients (wakame, enoki and tofu) than might be typical for traditional miso soup which is generally more brothy.
Cook's note: Temperature and time are very important to this recipe, miso soup should not be boiled.
- Cut the tofu into 1/2 inch square cubes
- Cut the enoki mushrooms in half (to the point where the individual stalks separate).
- Add 5 cups of water to a pot and heat to the point that it is very hot to touch, but not hotter (about 110 degrees Fahrenheit).
- Add the konbu seaweed and seep for 30 minutes. (Make sure the water doesn't get too hot).
- Remove the konbu and save for a different Japanese dish or discard it
- Heat the broth almost to boiling level (but not boiling) and add the katsuobushi.
- After one minute, strain the broth with a cloth-lined (cheesecloth works fine) strainer into a bowl. Do not squeeze!
- Heat the broth to almost a boil
- Add the tofu, wakame seaweed and enoki mushrooms
- Heat for a minute and a half (again, don't boil)
- Serve in small bowls and garnish with a few small rings of scallions (green onion).
Itadakimasu! (a humble expression of gratitude, used before dining but also used in other contexts such as receiving a gift from an older person or an award).
Recipe and text by T. Johnston-O'Neill
Photo by Emily Johnston-O'Neill