If you have eaten in a Japanese restaurant, you have probably tasted miso, the fermented bean paste that is the base of your miso soup. If you are like most people, you may consume this healthful combination of soybeans and grain without thinking much about it. But think again. A fermented food, miso provides heaps of health benefits and nutrients. It’s also a cook’s friend thanks to the intense flavor that this Japanese ingredient brings to all types of dishes, such as soups and stews, sauces and salad dressings. Dana Jacobi, author of The Essential Best Foods Cookbook, tells High Energy for Life readers how miso can deliver rich flavors normally achieved only by hours of cooking.

WHY FERMENTATION?

You hear a lot these days about the health benefits of fermented foods. Fermentation is a natural chemical process that has been used for centuries. During fermentation, enzymes produced by “good” bacteria change the flavor of food or drink. The enzymes produced during fermentation break down the proteins and carbohydrates in the fermented food, making them easier for the body to digest and absorb. In addition to miso, common fermented foods include soy sauce, sake, beer, wine, sourdough bread and sauerkraut. (Stay tuned—High Energy for Life will cover a variety of delicious fermented foods in future issues.)

GETTING TO THE BOTTOM OF MISO

Most miso is made with a combination of soybeans, rice or barley, salt and Aspergillus orzyae, a beneficial bacteria. Miso is a probiotic food that helps digestion by introducing health-promoting bacteria into your body. It also is a complete protein and contains plenty of antioxidants. While miso contains salt as a natural preservative, it contains less sodium than salt. A tablespoon of miso contains about 540 milligrams (mg) to 660 mg of sodium (depending on its color), while one teaspoon of table salt contains about 2,360 mg of sodium. Because of all its other nutrients, miso is considered healthier than salt. However, people with high blood pressure or sensitivity to sodium should avoid miso or use it sparingly.

Miso, which resembles peanut butter in texture, ranges in color from white and ivory yellow to terra cotta, red-brown or near black…and in taste from sweet to earthy and meaty. When miso is made, local water, weather and length of fermentation affects its flavor, just like in making wine and beer.

COOKING WITH MISO

Miso goes well with beans, including lentils, all kinds of winter squash, and dishes containing tomatoes (including pasta sauce), cabbage and other vegetables.

To use miso in a dish, keep in mind that lighter-colored misos are sweeter and less salty and that darker ones are more intense, meaty and salty. You can use mellow white or sweet white miso in dressings, and it can take the place of dairy, particularly in soups. Try it mashed into root vegetables, where it adds flavor and texture (see recipe below). Pale misos also can be mixed with peanut butter to make a great sandwich spread. Add orange marmalade to the sandwich—and it’s delicious. Medium-intense barley or rice misos go particularly well with beans, lentils, grain dishes and tomato sauces. Lastly, meaty earth brown or dark brown “hatcho” miso enhances the flavor of heavier stews and chili.

You don’t need to use much miso. Most dishes, including soups, chilis and stews, call for no more than one to two tablespoons of miso.

When adding miso paste to a simmering pot, it can break up into tiny beads that refuse to dissolve. To avoid this, first thin the miso by dipping two to four tablespoons of hot liquid from the pot and blending it with the miso in a small bowl. Then stir the thinned miso into the pot. For dressings, combine the miso with the vinegar or other liquid before adding the oil.

Look for organic, unpasteurized miso. You’ll find it in round plastic tubs or glass jars in the refrigerated section of natural and Japanese food stores. It costs about $6 to $10 for an eight- to 16-ounce container. To store, transfer miso packed in plastic into a glass jar. Tightly cover the jar and refrigerate it. Unpasteurized miso will keep for months.

Here is an absolutely delicious and easy miso recipe to try…

MISO SMASHED POTATOES

Serves 4

Mellow white miso enhances the flavor of little new potatoes and gives them creamy texture that contrasts with their tender skins.

1½ pounds small red- or white-skinned new potatoes

2 cloves garlic, peeled

2 Tablespoons sweet white miso

1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

  1. In a medium saucepan, boil the potatoes and garlic until the potatoes are soft when pierced with a knife, about 20 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix the miso with the oil until well blended.
  3. Drain the potatoes and garlic. As soon as they are cool enough to handle, peel half the potatoes and place in a bowl. Add the remaining, unpeeled potatoes and the garlic cloves to the bowl. Add the miso mixture to the potatoes. Using a fork, roughly mash the potatoes and garlic while blending in the miso mixture. Leave the potatoes coarsely mashed, with pieces of skin crumpled in. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.