Essentials of Japanese Cooking:? Miso

We continue our Essentials of Japanese Cooking series this month with a feature on miso… the so in ryori no sa shi su se so. Miso is a fermented paste made from soybeans, salt, either rice or barley, and a fermentation starter called koji. Used in miso soup, as a marinade, in dressings and sauces and a variety of other dishes, miso is an important staple in the Japanese pantry.

Miso is said to have originated in China, as early as the 4th century BCE. It was introduced to the people of Japan by Buddhist monks who traveled from China and brought many new ideas that inspired and informed Japanese food culture. The way Japanese people began to produce miso refined it into a few varieties, each with a distinctive flavor and nutritional profile, texture and umami (the rich and savory taste of glutamate-based foods).

miso01

Four main varieties of Japanese miso are available at most grocery stores in Japan, along with a few specialty gourmet types. The main varieties include rice or ‘kome’?miso, which is the most commonly consumed variety, barley or ‘mugi?‘miso, pure soybean or ’mamemiso, and blended ’awasemiso, made with two or three types of other miso pastes. Each of these pastes are fermented from a few weeks up to three years, and the lighter varieties are more mildly flavored than the darker ones.

Specialty miso pastes including hatcho miso, an all-soybean paste with a medium sweet/strength/saltiness profile, saikyo miso, a golden yellow paste with a naturally sweet, low salt flavor, and moromi miso, a chunky miso with the grains of rice or barley only partially crushed. Each of these specialty miso pastes are used in particular dishes, and not in general preparations such as miso soup or grilled fish.

Miso is high in protein, the B vitamins, enzymes, Vitamin E, fiber, lecithin, isoflavones, peroxidase inhibitors and prostaglandins–all of which may help to nourish and regulate the body. Miso was a critical component of Japanese diets during lean times and famines, and it is still consumed almost daily by people in Japan.

misoshiru

Miso soup

Traditionally, miso soup is enjoyed first thing in the morning, as part of a Japanese breakfast, to cleanse and nourish the body. (We have a great recipe for tofu misoshiru on our website!) The soup is made using a miso koshi, or small metal strainer, to create an even, smooth broth. Miso is also used in marinades and as a glaze for meat, seafood and vegetables, but must always be added to a dish either before or at the tail end of cooking, so the beneficial nutrients and the delicate flavor in the fermented paste are not destroyed by heat.

Miso is most often used in marinades, sauces and dressings. When used as a marinade, miso helps to breakdown the proteins in fish and poultry, infusing them with umami and drawing out any acidity or bitterness from the animal flesh. Salmon and cod marinated in miso and then broiled are popular preparations for these healthful oily fish. Miso-Marinated Chicken Kushiyaki is a great way to broil chicken. When used in sauces and dressings, miso can be mixed with mayonnaise, ginger, sesame oil, honey, citrus and even spicy sriracha sauce. Miso is even used occasionally in simmered nimono dishes, called miso-ni, in which miso is blended with dashi, mirin, soy sauce and fresh ginger and then used to cook various meat and vegetables.

One of our favorite recipes using miso is Beef Miso and Rice on Salad Leaf. The miso is used to impart a rich flavor to the sautéed ground beef and rice! Try it and tell us how it worked for you.

In our next post, we’ll discuss cooking with sake and mirin, and give you some other great recipes to try out! As always, we’d love to hear about your experiences as a beginner with Japanese cooking, so leave us a comment below.

Essentials of Japanese Cooking:? Vinegar & Soy Sauce

Last month, we started our Essentials of Japanese Cooking series with the first two ingredients of ryori no sa shi su se so—sugar and salt—and how they’re used to begin preparing a simmered dish. We continue this month with the next two ingredients… vinegar and soy sauce.

Vinegar, or su, is a key ingredient in the traditional Japanese pantry. Japanese vinegar is typically made from rice and has a light, golden brown color and mild, sweet taste, without the strong acidity found in distilled or wine vinegars. Rice vinegar serves many purposes in Japanese cooking: it is a preservative used for pickling, it prevents discoloration of vegetables and rice, it tones down salty flavors and tenderizes meat, poultry and fish, and is used to prepare sushi rice and sunomono, Japanese pickled salad. As part of the ‘principle of five’, vinegar is used to marinate ingredients before they are cooked and to add to the supercharged liquids used for simmering. It’s also used to create complexity in sauces, dressings and pickles.

Sunomono

Assorted sunomono

Vinegar’s acidity is balanced by the savory taste of shoyu, or Japanese soy sauce, the se. Two types of shoyu are most predominantly used in Japanese cooking: light (usukuchi shoyu) typically used in Kansai style cooking and dark (koikuchi shoyu), traditionally used in Kanto style cooking. Both types of soy sauce are made from soy beans, wheat, rice, salt and yeast, with the ingredients fermented and aged naturally to give the resulting sauce a rich flavor.

In Japan, shoyu is both mass-produced and artisanally prepared. Traditionally, shoyu is made by combining the ingredients and fermenting them in large vats that are hand-stirred. Larger manufacturers follow a similar process, but allow machines to mix the ingredients. In either process, the sauce is aged for at least six months. Koikuchi shoyu is produced most often, and is considered the ‘standard’ type of Japanese soy sauce. It is made with equal parts soy and wheat, plus salt and yeast. This darker soy sauce is used for simmered dishes and most often in home cookery.

shouyufactory

Usukuchi shoyu, the second most popular soy sauce is lighter and saltier than koikuchi shoyu. It’s the preferred soy sauce for haute cuisine and recipes originating from the Kansai region of Japan, and because of its lighter color and unique flavor in dips and sauces that need to be light in color. Usukuchi shoyu is made from soy, wheat, salt and yeast, and is often flavored with fermented rice, wheat gluten or amakaze.

Tamari, Saishikomi and Shiro shoyu are specialty types of sauces, often used as dipping sauces and for flavoring specific dishes.

Shoyu is serious business in Japan, as it is one of the essential condiments used in all Japanese cuisine. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Fishing and Forestry and the Japanese Soy Sauce Association both monitor the grading and labeling of shoyu. Grades include special, first grade, standard grade, extra select and ultra-extra select and labeling includes the notation of any additives, whether the ingredients were grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, whether the sauce was made from the whole soy bean, whether the sauce is low sodium and whether it raw and unpasteurized.

nimono

Nimono

Simmered dishes, or nimono, rely a great deal on sa shi su se so used in a dish in a particular order, and are exemplary of the fundamental rules of Japanese cooking. Vinegar is used to tenderize or marinate meat or poultry before adding these types of tougher materials to a simmered dish, and is used to coat vegetables after quickly simmering to prevent discoloration. Shoyu is often added to simmering liquids to impart light to robust flavor and umami to foods. Each step of a nimono recipe is performed precisely in an order that enhances the qualities of each ingredient, building complexity while remaining delicate and true to the tastes of the food itself.

We have a lovely Nimono (Japanese Summer Vegetable Stew) recipe on our website that is easy for beginners and we hope you enjoy trying it!

In our next post, we’ll discuss how miso is used and how this essential of the Japanese pantry is used in many dishes. We’d love to hear back from you about your experiences as a beginner with Japanese cooking, so leave us a comment below.

 

Essentials of Japanese Cooking:? Sugar & Salt

Japanese cooking is rich in tradition and precise technique. Whether creating obanzai-style meals at home or high-kaiseki cuisine at the finest restaurant, Japanese cooking tradition, or washoku, is based on five sets of thoughtful principles–five colors, five flavors, five senses, five methods, and five viewpoints. As we begin 2016, we’re introducing the five ingredients of Japanese cooking that serve as the foundation for these principles: sugar, salt, vinegar, soy sauce and miso.?satou

These five ingredients, known collectively as ryori sa shi su se so, are stocked in almost every Japanese kitchen pantry and are added to foods in this precise order. Herbs and other light seasonings are used to enhance the flavors of these essentials, creating light and tasty dishes. The technique for adding seasoning to food is based on the type of preparation method used for the component of the meal, which traditionally includes rice, soup, broiled fish, poultry or meat, simmered vegetables, a salad and pickles.

In a simmered dish of vegetables, the ingredients are cooked in a liquid that infuses them with savory umami, enhancing and drawing out the natural taste of the vegetables. The vegetables are placed in a pot, water or stock is added, and the sa shi su se so ingredients are added one at a time, building a mixture that is rich, yet delicate.? The first ingredient to be used during cooking is sugar, or sato, as its molecules are larger than those found in salt. Adding sugar before any other ingredient allows the sugar molecules to infuse the food, creating a base upon which all other flavors are balanced.sukiyaki

Once sugar is added to the simmering liquid, salt, or shio, is added to temper the sweetness of the sugar and to build complexity on the palate. Salt is a preservative, and prevents chlorophyll from breaking down, keeping green vegetables green during cooking. Salt begins the process of osmosis, allowing bitter liquids to drain out of ingredients. When used in the correct proportion, salt satisfies the palate.

Sugar and salt are only the beginning in Japanese cooking, and with the addition of vinegar, soy sauce and miso, a Japanese dish truly blossoms. In our next post, we’ll discuss how vinegar and soy sauce are used… and how our simmered vegetables continue to develop! We’d love to hear back from you about your experiences as a beginner with Japanese cooking, so leave us a comment below.