Thursday, October 04, 2012

Miso Soup Demystified

Quick—how do you make miso soup (miso shiru)? Do you think it involves adding miso paste to water? That's what I thought too, back when I first moved to Japan. And I could not figure out why my miso soup didn't taste like the miso soup I was served in restaurants and homes. It was missing that savory something . . . When I finally got my hands on an English-language cookbook (one I still rely on today, 20 years later: Keiko Hayashi's, Try It, You'll Love It, available used on, I found out the secret missing ingredient. Not tofu, not wakame seaweed, although those are essential too. No, what was missing was dashi. Dashi is a soup stock based on fish and the heavy seaweed called kombu. Dashi is to Japanese cuisine what chicken stock is to western cuisines. It goes in too many dishes to count. If you can make dashi, you can make not only authentic miso soup, but also many more Japanese dishes, ramen broth, and other soups and stews (nimono). Dashi is home base and all it takes, to play ball is having the ingredients on hand.

First, go to an Asian grocery store or look in the Asian foods section of your supermarket. Buy a packet of kombu (or konbu) seaweed. It's thick, flat strands of very salty, unappealing-looking seaweed. The flavor is mild, though, and it adds a bit of thickness (kombu must be rinsed and cut to fit before use). Kombu is also super-healthy and will not spoil.

Also, buy a pack of bonito flakes. Bonito is a tasty, savory fish with a big flavor. It's shaved or flaked and packaged in miso soup individual packets--or in larger packets. Known as katsuo in Japanese, and katsuobushi for the flaked bonito. Why use bonito specifically? Well, you need a fish base and bonito flakes are an easy, no fuss way to get it.

Another well-know method to get fish base is to use dried sardines, known as niboshi (warning: niboshi have eyeballs and bones and a strong smell--this may freak you out a bit) and soak them in water and then strain.

I prefer bonito flakes. They smell good and taste great--plus you can use katsuobushi in other dishes (it's great on cold tofu, for instance).

With the secret dashi ingredients in your cabinet, along with miso, tofu, shiitake mushrooms and green onions (optional), and wakame seaweed, you are ready to roll with authentic miso soup. If you buy dried shiitake and bulk miso paste, you'll have all the miso soup ingredients except for fresh tofu on hand and ready--they don't go bad years.

Authentic Miso Soup
6 cups water
1 four-inch piece kombu, rinsed
6 tablespoons miso, white or red
1 10-ounce package silken tofu, cut into half-inch cubes
1 tablespoon wakame seaweed
1/2 cup bonito flakes (katsuobushi, shaved roasted skipjack tuna)

Optional Ingredients
3 to 5 shiitake black mushrooms, stems discarded and sliced thinly, optional
Thinly sliced green onion tops, optional (can cut with scissors)
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger root

Boil the water and add the kombu to the pot to soak. Pour the katsuobushi into the pot and let everything boil for a few minutes. Remove the kombu and strain out the katsuobushi, so that all you have left in the pot is a clear broth. Add in the cubed tofu and shiitake, and then boil for a few minutes. Turn off the burner, and get a soup ladle and a spoon handy. Put half of the miso into the soup ladle. Add in some of the soup and use the spoon to mush it and stir it until all the miso lumps are dissolved and you have a thick slush. Add this to the soup and do the same for the last half (making sure there are no lumps in the soup--miso lumps are salty!). Lastly, add in the wakame and serve (the wakame expands before your eyes--cool!).

If you need to reheat miso soup, do so slowly--you do not want to cook the miso, as it will lose flavor. Miso soup is great for breakfast the next day--add in a beaten egg and stir just to cook. Hearty and yummy!

  • You can vary the size of this recipe as you like--the rule of thumb is one tablespoon of miso per one cup of water (8 oz.) 
  • Also, most miso soup is served with thin slices of raw green onion floating on top. I don't usually bother with the green onions because I prefer onions cooked better than raw, but feel free to experiment with it, keeping the quantity small until you see what works for you. The onions should be a minor side flavor and not domineering.
  • If you to want to add other ingredients--clams, muscles, carrots, daikon, potatoes, etc., be sure to cook the ingredients, set aside, and then add them to the finished miso soup. Sounds crazy, but again, once you "cook" miso, some of the beneficial bacteria and the flavor is lost. 
  • We love kombu in our house, so I often remove the cooked kombu. slice it into thin strips, and add that back into the soup for extra body.