A few weeks ago I kicked off the Miso Soup Project, an occasional series about this versatile, healthy, elemental and, of course, supremely delicious Japanese dish. To learn more, I visited the remarkable Hiroko Shimbo, Japanese food authority and author of The Japanese Kitchen, The Sushi Experience, among other terrific books. Hiroko graciously invited me to her kitchen to teach me about miso soup, and show me how to cook three tasty versions. Here's our interview:
Harris: Let's talk miso, to start with. Which do you use?
Hiroko: There are so many varieties that I love. Today I'm cooking with three of my favorite miso. The first is called aka dashi, which is a combination of 80% Hatcho miso and 20% kome miso, or sweet white rice miso. Hatcho miso is fermented for two years from just soybeans, which gives is a wonderful mahogany color and rich aroma. The combination of the two miso produces a very refined, slightly sweet soybean flavor.
I'm also using aka miso, red miso, which can be made from rice or barley and soybeans. The one I have here is made from barley, which has its own wonderful distinctive flavor and aroma. And finally I'm using a sweet white miso, a rice miso that's quickly fermented to give it a sweeter flavor.
Harris: I don't see the miso we find in your typical restaurant miso soup.
Hiroko: That variety's called shiro miso, or white salty miso. It is salty and does not have much character from my point of view.
Harris: So which miso are you going to use for your first soup?
Hiroko: I don't use just one kind of miso when making miso soup. I mix them together, something we call awase miso in Japanese. When you mix miso together you get so many flavor profiles and add more complexity to the soup.
Harris: Any rules of thumb for awase miso?
Hiroko: I don't buy pre-mixed awase miso. I want to balance the flavors myself. For example, in the cold of wintertime, Japanese eat sweeter miso soup, which is cozy and warming. So I mix in more sweet miso in the colder months. When the weather becomes milder and hotter, though, I increase the savory dimension, which is more refreshing in summertime. I usually use just two kinds of miso to make my awase, one sweet, the other savory.
Harris: Tell me about the first soup you're going to cook.
Hiroko: Miso soup is very seasonal. The first one I'm preparing is the most typical soup, with wakame, tofu, and scallion. Even with this simple soup you can add a seasonal touch by changing the scallion to ginger, or to shichimi togarashi.
Just by changing a little bit of the garnish and the varieties of miso, you can make the soup more interesting and seasonal. That's the beauty and fun of miso soup. If it's just wakame, tofu and scallions all the time, it would be really boring.
Harris: I see you have a dashi already prepared for this soup, plus all the ingredients ready, the tofu and wakame cut into bite-size pieces, scallions and ginger finely sliced. How much miso and other ingredients do you put in?
Hiroko: Someone who grew up in Japan would know automatically how much. My cookbook, The Japanese Kitchen, talks about proportions in detail. The making of good dashi is also very important, which I go into detail about in the book, too. You want to add a little miso to give the soup wonderful flavor, but not overpowering saltiness. If you have a good dashi, then you don't need to add too much miso.
Also, don't cook tofu for too long, otherwise it will become too firm and won't be so appealing. Once you heat the tofu and wakame in dashi, then turn off the heat and use a strainer and spoon to dissolve the miso into the soup. I'm going to accent it with a little ginger and a little scallion.
Here, taste it.
Harris: It's delicious.
Hiroko: You have the tastes of the different miso, the little bit of bite of the scallions and ginger, plus that umami from the dashi, without the taste of overwhelming saltiness. A very simple soup, but the Japanese way is very precise so each point has to be done properly. The dashi, tofu, length of cooking, are all important. Once you add the miso, serve the soup immediately. After doing it ten times everything will become second nature.
Harris: It's precise but it's not complicated, once you understand the steps.
Hiroko: It's so simple, but each simple step is so important to reach to something very delicious.
Harris: What are you cooking next?
Hiroko: There are so many kinds of miso soup -- maybe a thousand. This next one I'm cooking is with chicken.
Harris: I see you're first sautéing a little bit of slivered ginger in a touch of sesame oil in a saucepan, then adding pieces of chicken.
Hiroko: As soon as the chicken becomes white outside, add dashi and just cook chicken through. This is chopstick food, so everything is cut into bite-size pieces, which means it cooks very quickly. That's the beauty of Japanese cooking.
Miso soup is a wonderful way to use any tiny amount of leftover vegetables. Here I'm adding Swiss chard and carrots. Any green is okay, just shred it. Now the dashi has a chicken essence so it has more flavor. And have the ginger in there, too.
I'm going to add some awase miso from aka dashi and sweet shiro dashi. Here taste it.
Hiroko: Always taste the soup as you add the miso. Always taste everything. Notice, too, that I turn off the heat so I don't cook off the good flavor of miso.
Harris: What's interesting is that you heat the soup just as long as necessary to cook through ingredients. There carrot still has its texture and firmness, and the kale is delicious.
Hiroko: I can also add more vegetables and less dashi. With a bowl of rice, it would make a great meal. You can add pork, too, if you'd like.
Harris: Now we're on to our third soup. I see you're adding tobanjan [note: a spicy fermented bean base], mushrooms, green cabbage, and a little bit of sesame oil. You're sautéing very quickly - the vegetables still have their texture when you add dashi and dissolve in the miso. You accent with a little chopped scallion and shichimi togarashi. Done. The soup is ready in two minutes.
What kind of awase miso are you using this time?
Hiroko: For this version, I'm adding a mixture of aka miso from barley and sweet white miso. Notice, too, that the soup is not too busy. Two or three ingredients, that's it. That's the beauty of miso soup.
Harris: Would any vegetables work?
Hiroko: You can use any vegetables you have in the fridge, even potatoes and sweet potatoes. Miso soup is a perfect way to use bits of leftover vegetables.
Harris: Like all your soups, this one tastes amazing. The cabbage is cooked through but still crunchy. What a way to enjoy breakfast.
Hiroko: I love adding cabbage, so crunchy. This soup is perfect for the summer. A little spicy, and very soothing.
Also, don't forget if you have any leftover soup, don't throw it away. You can quickly reheat it on the stovetop or microwave. Don't waste.
Harris: Thank you, Hiroko!