Few things are as satisfying as a simple bowl of excellent miso soup — hot, salty, a touch sweet, a touch sour, and full of soft, tender, and mild tofu. It’s the Japanese equivalent of chicken soup, in a way — healthy, restorative, comforting, culturally imbued with all kinds of emotional significance, and easy-as-all-hell to make. As easy as apple pie. Easier in fact.
Miso soup, like virtually everything in Japanese cuisine, starts with the sea. In this case the foundation is dashi, an infusion of kombu and katsuobushi which is the ubiquitous base stock used in a wide array of sauces, soups, marinades, and dressings. Kombu is a type of kelp that is harvested from the sea and then dried in the sun until stiff like thin cardboard. Katsuobushi is dried and smoked bonito (skipjack tuna) that is shaved into papery ribbons and used in a myriad of applications. Both kombu and katsuobushi contain glutamic acids that are responsible for umami, the “fifth taste” of savoriness that is responsible for such a rich and deeply flavored broth.
What we’re making here is called ichiban dashi, which translates to mean “first broth”, the initial soak of the seaweed and shaved bonito. After you strain the solids out of this batch of dashi you could re-simmer the steeped kombu and bonito flakes to create a second, weaker broth, called niban dashi. Cost-conscious types then can use the niban dashi for sauces and other (less elegant) soups and stews. To tell the truth I never bother with niban dashi unless a recipe calls for it explicitly. Niban dashi is brinier and can be a little cloudy. Still acceptable but not as delicious as the ichiban kind.
Kombu and katsuobushi are both fairly inexpensive, they are shelf-stable for months, and since ichiban dashi is so easy to make, I make it fresh whenever I get a hankering for it. If I have leftovers I freeze it and use it later.
- four quarts of cold water, filtered
- 4 strips of kombu, about 3″ X 6″
- 4 cups (loosely packed) katsuobushi
Wipe off any white residence from the kombu squares with a damp paper towel. Place in a pot with the cold water. Allow the kombu to soak for about ten minutes. Bring it just to a boil over medium-high heat and dump in the katsuobushi. Turn off the heat right after adding the bonito flakes. Allow stock to steep for five minutes. Strain dashi slowly through a strainer lined with several layers of cheesecloth or a thin kitchen towel (a coffee strainer is also cool).
It’s now ready for use!
A couple of tips:
When making dashi it is important to closely follow the suggestions for steeping time and soaking. You don’t want to boil your ingredients or allow them to steep too long as the stock can get bitter, briny, and cloudy.
For a vegetarian version of dashi try the following. When you soak the kelp add one cup of sliced dried shiitake mushrooms. Soak both kelp and mushrooms for ten minutes, bring to a boil, turn off the heat, add a half-cup of chopped green onions, and steep for five minutes. Add a pinch of sugar and add a little salt if you think it’s necessary. Strain and go.
Here in Los Angeles I can readily find all the ingredients for fantastics dashi broth and miso soup. Miso paste, tofu, and dried shiitakes are found in almost all general supermarkets. Kombu, katsuobushi, wakame, and fresh enoki mushrooms can be found at Whole Foods and at all Japanese and Korean supermarkets — Njijya, Marukai and Mitsuwa are two examples of Japanese markets with multiple locations. For those without easy access to these ingredients, check out Asian Food Grocer online for dried, canned, or otherwise preserved ingredients.
Put whatever ingredients you want into your miso soup — mushrooms, pork, noodles, green onions, clams, simmered daikon, poached fish, tofu, kale, bok choy, bean sprouts, tiny dried fish, and bamboo shoots are but a few ideas. But when I get hungry for miso I want basic. Classic. Elegant. Clean. Rich.
I like it like this:
My Favorite Miso: serves two-to-four hungry hippos
You will need:
- 6 cups freshly made ichiban dashi broth
- 6 tablespoons shiro miso paste (white miso paste)
- medium-firm tofu, organic preferably, cut into 1/2-inch cubes and at room temperature
- green onions, shaved into thin rounds
- fresh enoki mushrooms (mushroom tips cut about 1/2 inch long)
- wakame, reconstituted (see tip below)
- these little fried crunchy bits of dough that I buy, untranslated, from the Japanese market
Wakame is a type of sea veggie with a fresh, mild taste and a tender mouthfeel. They are available dried. Drop a few pieces into a bowl of cool water to reconstitute them. They expand dramatically, not quite like sponge dinosaurs, but enough to keep in mind that you won’t need but a few strips.
I couldn’t name all the brands of tofu out there if I tried, so you might try a few brands to see what you like. They are all fairly inexpensive, so mess around some time and try to discover what appeals to you. For miso soup I like medium firm or soft. I generally prefer organic, but this block was at my local market for $1.29!
Enoki mushrooms are also great wrapped in very thinly sliced bacon and then grilled. Hot damn, them’s yummy! That’s a future blog-post for sure.
A decent substitute for enoki mushrooms is thinly sliced fresh shiitakes.
Miso is, in essence, fermented soybean paste, a name that doesn’t begin to convey the complexity of the wide range of misos available, from cheap to pricey, from mild to incredibly robust. Misos vary from region to region, from ingredient additions like barely or wheat, and from production method. But for this soup choose a simple, inexpensive, mild shiro miso. It is grainy, salty, and bit sweet. With a mild nuttiness, perhaps.
Maybe I’ve demystified miso soup just a little just for you. I hope so. It’s fun and tasty! What more could you ask for?
If you have trouble finding these or comparable products in a store near you, check out Asian Food Grocer, a pretty good online resource for Japanese food products. http://www.asianfoodgrocer.com/
Also, check out my related post about Soba Noodle Soup: https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/11/02/soba-noodles-in-chicken-kakejiru/