It’s hard to imagine a Japan without miso. We’ve all tried Japanese food or regularly eat it and sure enough miso soup among other delicious morsels using miso are common. Miso soup is synonymous with Japanese food and ingredients and for many non Japanese, it’s something that they themselves have come to embrace and love. Miso is the complete food, it is filling, extremely healthy, tasty, easy to use and easy to find. Of course, it hasn’t always been like this, miso certainly wasn’t always mass produced in Japan and it certainly wasn’t common to find miso around the world 50 years ago. The greatness of miso soup is now well known by the majority of people nowadays. Let’s have a look at the origins of miso and look at its story from it’s early times in Japan to current day.
First of all, let’s look at what miso actually is. In it’s standard form, miso is fermented soy beans. The key ingredient to miso is soy beans, but in actual fact miso can be made from almost anything. In fact it’s possible to find miso products made from combinations of soybeans, rice, wheat, buckwheat, barley and millet. Soybeans are fermented together with salt and a fungus for days to create a thick and strong tasting paste called miso. Most of us are familiar with a dark brown coloured miso but in actual fact there are many variations on miso, each being a difference in the base ingredients, fermentation times as well as cooking methodology.
The early origins of miso in Japan remain a little unclear. One school of thought by many authorities of Japanese history is that something similar to miso came from Korea or China midway during the 6th century. The other most popular belief is that there aren’t enough records from that time and therefore not enough evidence to confirm its arrival and integration into Japan, these people put the time of its arrival into Japan at AD 663.
Long before this time, the hunter gatherers of Japan who had arrived around 20,000 years ago actually made something known as hishiho. These people developed fermented sauces using ingredients such as fish, shellfish and meat. These people were able to take salt from seawater and use it to make these seasonings. In actual fact, hishiho products are actually still made in Japan today! Shottsuru which originates from Akita prefecture in northern Japan is hatahata (sandfish) and sardines pickled in salt, another example is shuto which is salted bonito intestines picked in Japanese rice wine. Many more such examples with a variety of ingredients live on in Japan today and usually vary from region to region.
The process of making miso has changed a lot since its early form. The process of making miso is very long and the basic method used these days is as follows. To begin, whole soybeans are soaked in water for a some time, this process turns the hard small soybeans into large soft beans with a lot of moisture as they absorb the moisture. The soybeans are then put into pressure cookers and cooked until the soybeans go completely soft. The beans are then transferred to colanders and the water they are boiled in held onto. Following this, the soybeans are then made into a puree. Next, the beans are then cooled down to around 40 degrees celsius. The next step is to dissolve salt in the water that the soybeans were soaked in, add this to the mashed soybeans mix and mix it altogether. Koji is then broken up and added in and the total mixture is mixed together until everything has mixed in well. Following this, this mixture is put into special ceramic containers lined with salt for the fermentation process. The miso is leveled out and has extra salt put on the surface to ensure unwanted bacteria is kept out. This is then covered up and left to ferment. These containers are kept in temperature controlled rooms that sit around 20 degrees celsius to keep the right conditions. Fermentation starts straight away and after about six months the end product is has been made.
Right now, in the 21st century we are fortunate enough to have the best of technology to make quality miso but of course this wasn’t always the case. Not only that, long ago the style of miso made was quite different also. In its early form, miso was made from whole soybeans that weren’t ground down and looked more like natto. It wasn’t until the Muromachi era which started in the 14th century that Buddhist monks started grounding soybeans down much like we do now allowing them to find new ways to use soybeans in cooking and also moving miso towards the kind of mixture we use today.
Throughout history, miso has been a very important part of the Japanese diet and when we look at its health benefits it’s not hard to see why. Miso has lots and lots of fibre. It contains lots of dietary fibre which really helps to keep our digestive systems healthy. Miso helps the body to produce digestive fluids that the stomach needs and is said to strengthen our blood also. Another important health benefit is that it helps to maintain our digestive systems because of the good bacterias found in miso. The key to miso’s health benefits is in the process of fermentation which it goes through. Just like with other foods that are fermented like natto, miso contains very large concentrations of bacteria that actually help the digestive tract in our stomach. Miso is fantastic for this reason as it really does help digestion of food, helping to maintain our stomachs and also making our immune system stronger. The good points don’t just stop there though. Miso contains lots of antioxidants, antioxidants are very important for removing free radicals from our bodies. Free radicals are believed to be linked to diseases such as diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and also aging. It is believed that the antioxidants in miso actually work to slow down the growth of and spreading of cancerous cells in the body. Miso is believed to reduce the chances of getting lung, prostate, colon and breast cancer.
Miso has been and still remains a crucial ingredient in Japan. With it’s unique flavour and incredible health properties, it has kept Japanese people healthy for centuries.