History & Culture of Japanese Miso

History of Miso


The earliest record of the use of miso in Japan appears in the Taiho code of 701. Scholars cannot say with absolute certainty whether miso was first introduced to Japan from Korea or China or whether it evolved organically from within Japan itself, or indeed all three. While various theories exist, it is commonly held that the method of making miso from tama (fermented miso balls) originated in Korea and is the progenitor to most Japanese farmhouse miso. Whereas the method of fermenting miso from koji-inoculated grains was transmitted from China, most likely through Buddhist channels, and was the method avored by the nobility and in monastaries. Furthermore, there is speculation that the evidence of salt-making during the prehistoric Jomon period and the fermented _sh and meat oncoctions of Yayoi (300 B.C.–300 A.D.) point to a native miso-making culture, which naturally evolved in the northeastern region of Japan, known as the “miso heartland.” In any case, the making of miso can be traced back undisputably to as early as 700 A.D. — well over 1000 years ago.

Miso was mentioned in the Engishiki (927 A.D.) as a soup ingredient for the wealthy in the 10th century, but because of its expense, most people could only eat a small dab of miso on rice or pickled vegetables. Also miso was an important seasoning added to simmered fish or vegetables, and thinned with vinegar, became a sauce for a salad of raw fish (namasu). By the 18th century, soy sauce had virtually replaced miso as the flavoring agent in urban areas, and by the year 2000, 90% of miso used in Japan was used for soup.

Miso soup, as we know it today, evolved in the Muromachi period (1336–1573) when miso soup–making parties emerged as a popular past time. The host would prepare the basic soup (atsumejiru) with seasonal ingredients and the guests would bring side dishes to enjoy with the communal soup. A rudimentary version of instant miso soup developed in Muromachi by samurai going to battle. Dried taro stems were simmered in miso then braided into long ropes (imogara nawa), which the samurai wore around their waists. The samurai cut pieces of the miso-simmered rope off while on the battlefield and poured boiling water over to create an instant life-sustaining ration.

The main fl­avoring of Japan shifted from miso to soy sauce in urban areas over a period of more than two centuries. However, in rural areas, miso remained the seasoning of choice over soy sauce well up to the end of the 20th century. And while many farm families continued making their own miso up until the 1950s, it was rare to make soy sauce because of its difficulty. Nonetheless, miso adds saltiness, ­flavor, and fragrance to food, so is experiencing a worldwide increase in popularity and use. And with a high content of glutamate acid, miso contributes both tart and sweet elements along with complex ­flavor structures. The paradox of Japanese haute cuisine is the saying: “Not to cook is the ideal of cooking,” and miso is an exceptional method to introduce complex, fermented salt notes to any cuisine.

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