If you’ve only had miso soup made from a dehydrated powder mix, you’re missing out. This common Japanese side dish is best made fresh from a paste like those pictured above.
Miso is fermented soybeans, rice, and barley. While it is typically a rich paste with some degree of saltiness, miso varies in color, flavor, texture, and intensity. Some are even sweet (though not in the candy sense). “Red” and “white miso are commonly used for soups along with dashi (soup stock made with bonito flakes and a strip of kombu [kelp]) for flavoring.
Making the soup isn’t too difficult. All you need is a small tub of miso paste, some dashi, and water (of course). A bit of salt can be substituted if you don’t have access to dashi or if their use is too complicated.
For the miso, I prefer those imported from Japan. I typically use white miso, though red is just as good. While Whole Foods and Wild Oats carry miso made in the USA, I don’t trust them. I grew up on Japanese miso and that’s what I use as an adult. I know what it tastes like, whereas I fear that the American variety is made with hippie-dippy health food tastes in mind. If this is what you have access to, work with what you got. I’ll just have to treat you to the real thing if possible.
Dashi can easily be made by boiling bonito flakes and kombu together. I tend to take a more modern approach and use an instant, granulated type. It makes preparation much quicker and easier. On some level, this may contradict my feeling about powdered miso. However, miso is the star while dashi is the supporting player. While my mother also uses granulated dashi, she gives adds a more authentic touch with throwing a square or two of kombu in the soup mix.
A heaping tablespoon of miso for every two cups of water should generally do the trick. Trust your tastebuds on figuring out the amount. Bring water to a boil and then turn it down before adding some dashi (sprinkle sparingly) and miso. Never, never, never over-boil miso as it ruins the flavor and the aroma. While miso paste can be pungent, miso soup can have a pleasant, nutty aroma.
Almost anything can be added to miso soup: chicken, clams, fish, scallions, spinach, potatoes, to name a few. I’ve even added a few things such as courgettes and yellow crookneck squash.
Miso has quite a few other uses as well. It can be made into a grilling sauce or salad dressing. Also, some of the darker varieties of miso are used as fillings for onigiri (rice balls). I’m good at making those too.