Miso soup is one of the cornerstones of Japanese cooking. It can be eaten at breakfast, lunch or dinner, and with everything from sashimi to steak to a bowl of white rice. You'll find it everywhere in Japan, from corner convenience stores to the finest restaurants.
I spent some time with Hiromitsu Kato, personal chef to Japan's Ambassador to Australia, to make a simple bowl of miso soup and to have a chat about this wonder of the Japanese kitchen.
What is miso soup?
It's often said that the true heart of Japanese cuisine can be found in a simple meal of just three things: a bowl of rice, a plate of pickles, and a bowl of miso soup.
Miso soup is a side dish served as a small portion of savoury soup and complementary ingredients and sipped directly from the bowl throughout a Japanese meal.
All you need to make authentic miso soup is some miso, a soup base, and a few ingredients to go inside.
Miso is a savoury Japanese seasoning paste made by fermenting cooked soybeans with koji mould, often along with other grains like rice, barley and wheat. There are two main categories: red and white.
Red miso contain higher proportions of soybeans to other grains, are dark brown with a reddish tinge, and are strongly flavoured. White misos contain lower proportions of soybeans and are usually beige in colour with a more mild flavour.
While these two types of miso can be considered broad categories, there are in fact thousands of different varieties. They all have different flavours, colours and strengths. Just find a brand and type of miso that you like. You can even mix different kinds of miso together to create your own unique flavour.
The base liquid for miso soup is usually a very simple stock, but can even just be water. Popular bases in Japan are stocks made from kombu, bonito flakes, dried sardines or anchovies. The stock base for miso soup should be light and unsalted. A mixture of stock and water works well.
For his miso soup with clams, chef Kato boils clams in water with just a touch of sake (1 part sake to 10 parts water). The liquid from the clams provides a perfect base for the soup.
Miso soup traditionally contains just three or four ingredients, usually seafood and vegetables. Select ingredients to match the season and locality, as well as for contrast of flavour, texture and appearance.
Some ingredients float in the soup while others sink to the bottom and are revealed as the soup is drunk or stirred. Crisp ingredients like spring onions are used in contrast to soft ingredients like tofu. Other popular miso soup ingredients include sliced onion, mushrooms, spinach, egg, fish and shellfish, seaweeds and dried wheat gluten.
Making the soup
To make miso soup bring your soup base to a simmer and dissolve in the miso through a sieve or in the base of a ladle to remove any pieces of husk or uncrushed grain, then add the ingredients and serve.
As a rule of thumb, use a ratio of 1 tbsp of very light miso to 1 cup of plain water, but adjust those quantities depending on the strength of the base and miso. The stronger the base, the less miso you'll need to add.
While some ingredients like clams can be cooked in the stock for flavour, strongly coloured ingredients like spinach should be cooked separately so that their colour doesn't affect the stock.
Authentic miso soup is just that easy. Follow these simple steps and you can leave the instant packet soups behind forever.
Chef Kato's miso soup with clams, wakame and tofu
5g dried wakame
1 cup small clams (about 16 clams), scrubbed
2 tbsp light-coloured miso
150g silken tofu, drained
2 tbsp finely sliced spring onions
1. Soak the wakame in plenty of cold water for 5 minutes until soft.
2. Place the clams, sake and water in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer, simmering for about 2 minutes until the clams open. Reduce the heat to very low.
3. Place the miso in a small sieve or large ladle and submerge just under the surface of the liquid. With a stirring motion with a spoon dissolve the miso into the soup. Discard any piece of rice, grain or soybean husk remaining in the sieve or ladle. Do not return the soup to a simmer or boil after adding the miso.
4. Slice the wakame into 2cm lengths and add to the soup. Carefully slice the tofu into 2cm cubes and drop into the soup.
5. Place a few sliced spring onions in the bottom of each of four small soup bowls and divide the soup between the bowls to serve.