Miso – The Story Behind Japan’s Condiment of Choice for 1000 Years

By Fooding Around, Crystal, pelican, Kari Sullivan [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

There was a time when miso was only eaten by nobility and monks. It was strictly forbidden for commoners to even eat the fermented condiment. What a difference a thousand years or so makes – today it is the cornerstone of traditional Japanese meals.

Miso was invented in China and first eaten over 2500 years ago. It was originally a paste made of cooked soybeans and fermented grains and spread directly on food. When the foodstuff arrived in Japan it was considered a food of the elite and given as gifts and even used as wages. The first specialty miso shops, decreed by Japanese law, eventually appeared in Kyoto.

Through the ages, the miso soybeans were mashed into a soup that became the go-to food for samurai warriors. Later, as the country dissolved into decades of civil war, the nutrient-rich miso paste was a critical battlefield ration. During the Edo Period from the 1600s to the 1800s experimenting with different methods of fermentation led to high-grade miso favored by the wealthy merchant class and everyday varieties for the masses. Miso shops with increasingly complex recipes sprang up across Japan to satisfy all these needs.

Ways of Making Miso

The art of creating miso involves a mastery of fermentation and aging. Fermentation of the soybean paste uses salt and takes place when the weather is hot. When the temperatures drop, the fermenting enzymes slow and undesirable bacteria die off. The miso is ready for market at this time but not all miso is consumed after this process. The fermentation cycle for some miso is repeated in the second year and even a …continue reading