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Miso Soups (by Aveline Kushi)

Miso is a smooth, dark puree made from soybeans, fermented barley or rice, and sea salt which have aged together over a period of several months to several years. Miso is very sweet and delicious and can be used in making soups, aging pickles, preparing sauces and spreads, and for occasional seasoning in place of salt in cooking. Miso contains living enzymes that aid digestion, strengthen the blood, and provide a nutritious balance of complex carbohydrates, essential oils, protein, vitamins, and minerals. According to legend, miso was a gift from the gods to ensure humanity's health, longevity, and happiness. Miso has been an important food in the Far East since the beginning of civilization and is now becoming popular in the West.

When I first came to the United States, high-quality natural miso was unavailable. When we were living in New York in the 1950s, we ordered a keg of miso once or twice a year from Japan for our family's daily use. Later, Erewhon began to import miso on a large scale, and it became a staple in natural foods and health food stores across the country. In the last decade, macrobiotic pioneers have started miso companies in North Carolina, Massachusetts, and elsewhere to provide delicious miso from organically grown North American grains and beans.

In Japan, miso consumption has sharply fallen during the last generation. Except for a handful of families who still make miso in the traditional way, commercial miso in Japan is now usually made with chemicals, preservatives, and sugar, and the aging process is artificially speeded up from one to two years to two to three months. Interest in miso and traditional methods of miso-making have recently been revived. Japan's National Cancer Center reported recently the results of a national medical study showing that people in Japan who ate miso soup every day had lower rates of cancer and heart disease and suffered less from other causes of death. This finding conformed with traditional Oriental medicine and folk wisdom which valued miso as the supreme medicine for the prevention and relief of disease. In the U.S. and Europe, scientific researchers have also been investigating the anti-tumor effects of miso, as well as other fermented soy foods such as tempeh, natto, and shoyu, and reported that miso is protective for breast cancer, leukemia, and other malignancies.

When I was growing up, we had miso soup twice a day. In the morning, Mother made it more simply with just spring water as a base. In the evening, she prepared a richer soup, often with a stock base and occasionally added fish. In our home in Brookline, Mass., we have light miso soup for breakfast. For lunch and dinner, we often have a rich miso soup, noodles with tamari soy sauce broth, or a soup made with vegetables, beans, or grains. At least one small bowl of miso soup with wakame sea vegetable is recommended each day.

Miso comes in several varieties and its taste differs widely according to the quality of its ingredients, the length of time it has aged, and the method of preparation. In general, barley miso (also known by its Japanese name of mugi miso) is the sweetest and most suitable for daily cooking. There is a 100% soybean miso called hatcho miso, which is strong tasting and good for making long-time pickles, for making condiments such as tekka, and for regular use in soup as well, especially in the winter. A lighter brown rice miso (or genmai miso) is good for occasional use, especially in spring and summer. Two or three of these misos may also be mixed for a unique flavor and taste. There are also red, white, and yellow misos, which are usually aged for only several months. Light tasting, these misos are used primarily with fish dishes.

In making miso soup and for regular cooking, I use a barley miso that has aged for at least eighteen months and often for two to three years. Of course, I am careful to be sure that the miso is organic in quality and contains no chemicals or additives. In the natural foods store, miso sold in bulk is usually preferable to miso sold in sealed containers. The latter have been pasteurized, thereby reducing the beneficial enzymes and bacteria that aid digestion.

A powdered miso is available for use while traveling. If circumstances permit, instant miso should be cooked for a few minutes in water rather than steeped like a tea bag. At home, it is better to use regular miso for daily cooking instead of instant miso. Miso can also be made at home with a grain started called koji, which contains a special bacteria that enables the soybeans to ferment. Koji is available now in many natural foods stores.

In general, the vegetables for miso soup should be well cooked. Ideally, they melt in the mouth and after thorough chewing can be swallowed instantaneously with the broth. Because miso contains living microorganisms that aid digestion, the soup should be simmered over low to medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes, but not boiled, after the miso puree is added.

Miso may be enjoyed the year-round, although the varieties, ingredients, and cooking methods may change with the seasons. Miso broth by itself is very satisfying on practically any occasion. To enjoy its simplicity, I make it plain, diluting the miso in spring water, and just adding a touch of sea vegetables and perhaps a contrasting garnish.

A second way is the layered method in which several kinds of vegetables are layered in the pot according to yin and yang with the softest on the bottom and the hardest on top. Cold water is added almost to cover; then the vegetables are cooked until tender and the miso added at the end. Just before adding the miso, additional water or soup stock may be added to bring the volume of liquid up substantially. The vegetables lose their layered texture if initially cooked in too much water. After this preliminary period of cooking, further liquid may be introduced.

A third method of making miso soup involves sauteing the vegetables first in a little sesame oil to remove the vegetables' sharp, raw taste. Water is then added and the vegetables are cooked as in the other methods. The miso is added just before the end of the cooking time. Sauteing makes a richer tasting soup that is very delicious and especially nourishing in the wintertime.

I use about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of miso per cup of water or stock in the soup, but this depends on the saltiness of the miso. The concentrated miso is pureed in about three or four times the volume of water (for example, 1 tablespoon of water to 1 teaspoon of miso, before being added to the water in the pot). Because miso is so sweet and delicious, it is easy to overuse it. This produces a craving for liquid, fruits, or sweets to balance the miso's strong salty content. The taste of miso soup should be neither too salty nor too bland. In making quick or basic miso soup, I use a small stainless steel saucepan. For heavier soups and stews, I use a cast-iron or ceramic pot or large kettle.

Basic Miso Soup 1 3-inch piece dried wakame sea vegetable 1 cup thinly sliced onions 1 quart spring water 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 tablespoons miso Chopped scallions, parsley, ginger, or watercress for garnish

Rinse the wakame in cold water for 3 to 5 minutes and slice it into 1/2-inch pieces. Put wakame and onions in a pot and add the water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 10 to 20 minutes, or until tender. Reduce the heat to very low but not boiling or bubbling. Put the miso in a bowl or suribachi (Japanese mortar). Add 1/4 cup of the broth from the pot and puree until miso is completely dissolved in the liquid. Add the pureed miso to the soup. Simmer for 3 to 5 minutes and serve. Garnish with scallions, parsley, ginger, or watercress.

Miso Soup with Millet and Squash 1/2 cup millet 1/2 cup sliced celery 1 cup sliced onions 1 cup cubed but not peeled butternut squash 1 quart spring water 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 tablespoons miso 1 sheet nori, toasted for garnish Chopped parsley for garnish.

Wash the millet and rye-roast it in a frying pan. In a pot, layer the vegetables, starting with the celery, then the onions, and squash on top. Spread millet evenly over the top of the layered vegetables. Carefully add water to just below the level of the squash. Cook covered over medium heat, adding water gradually as the millet expands. Do not stir. After the millet becomes very soft, about 25 to 30 minutes, add the rest of the water. Bring to a boil; then lower the heat. Mix the miso with a small amount of the broth from the pot and puree. Add the pureed miso to the soup a couple of minutes before serving. Garnish with nori cut in small strips, and parsley.

Variation: Other grains, such as barley, rice, oats, or cracked wheat, may be substituted for the millet.

Mochi Miso Soup

Mochi is pounded sweet rice. It can be found ready-made in most natural foods stores or you can make it at home. It is very sweet and delicious and may be added to miso soup and other dishes.

1 quart spring water 1 cup sliced Chinese cabbage 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 tablespoons miso Several pieces of dry pan-fried mochi 1 sheet toasted nori, cut into 1-inch squares 1 cup sliced scallions

Bring the water to a boil and add the Chinese cabbage. Lower the heat and simmer until the cabbage is just about done, about 3 to 5 minutes. Turn the heat to low and add the miso pureed in a little broth. Simmer for 2 minutes longer. Pour the hot soup over 1 to 2 pieces of pan-fried mochi. Garnish with the nori squares and scallions and serve.

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