A Consultation

This morning I peppered the Japanese farmer at our farmer’s market with miso soup questions. I was pretty sure that they were not drinking anything instant, but I was very surprised to hear that they cook miso soup as traditionally as one could possibly imagine. First of all they make their own miso. And when the next batch is ready, I’ll be buying some for my own use. I’ve bought it from them before and when you take a sniff it is like being back in Japan.

Granted not everyone is going to make their own miso, but even more surprising to me was that they make dashi the old-fashioned way. That is, they use a block of dried katsuo (bonito), shave flakes off of it, and then create the broth using iwashi, or dried sardines as well. I’m more of a fan of the bonito and konbu mix myself, but where on earth did they find a block of dried bonito, I wondered. It turns out that they get it sent from Japan, but he suggested I look online. Sure enough, I could buy both the wooden shaving box and a block of bonito online. At a cost. I’m not going there yet, but I bet I will by the end of this year. Meanwhile, just to check myself I watched this video on how to make perfect miso soup. Maybe it will be useful to you as well.

Today’s miso soup: I bought some white miso at our Asian market today and made a delicious Kyoto-style miso soup with atsuage (deep fried tofu), daikon (from the Japanese farmer), carrot, shiitake, and scallions. Delicious!

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The Hierarchy of Miso Soup

“It only takes five minutes to make miso soup.” True or False?

The answer is both. Here’s my hierarchy.

  1. You get a packet of dried powder and add hot water.
  2. You get two packets—one has dried ingredients and one squirts out paste. And you add hot water.
  3. You use miso that already has dashi (broth) added to it, make your miso soup on the stove.
  4. You use powdered dashi (comes in packets or a jar) and unadulterated miso.
  5. You use liquid store-bought dashi, much as you’d buy and use chicken broth.
  6. You make your own dashi. More about this later, as my dad would have said.
  7. You buy locally made miso.
  8. You make your own miso.

It’s comparable to making chicken soup, I suppose. I’ve started out with #3 but am hoping to move up in this hierarchy. I will never get to #8, but #7 is a distinct possibility as I have a source. And we’re not even talking about what you add to the miso soup here.

Variables? There are many. Broth is usually made from katsuoboshi (dried fish flakes)and konbu (a kind of seaweed). But it is possible to make a vegetarian broth. And miso? There are many kinds available. One of the secrets to a good miso soup is to take a few kinds of miso and mix them. In Japanese markets you will find a tub of mixed miso called “awasemiso” which gives you a light and dark miso neatly divided down the middle so you can decide your own proportions.

But you do need a broth. If your miso soup tastes bleh and you’ve just been using miso alone to make soup, that’s why. I recommend starting with dashi-iri  (dashi added in) miso that you can find at an Asian market.

Today’s miso soup: Ahem… I had leftover soup from yesterday and it was a long day at work. Do Japanese reheat leftover miso soup, or do they make it fresh each day? I have no idea. Tomorrow I’m off to the farmer’s market for more veggies. Meanwhile…. yakisoba for lunch!

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Learning to Cook in Japan

My first Japanese cooking knowledge was gleaned from the public bath. Like many other gaijin, or foreigners, in Japan in the 1970’s, I did not have a bath in my small lodgings and I visited the sento (public bath) daily. It was always full of people, but the crowd changed depending on the time of day. They usually opened around 4:00 PM and closed around 11:00 PM. If you went early, you caught the grannies, and mothers with children. At that stage of the game I didn’t speak Japanese very well, but I was able to catch much of what I heard. So one day I asked a group of grannies how to make miso soup.

That brought about a flood of instructions and advice and they voiced opinions enthusiastically. In the public bath people talk freely and openly. There’s a word for that—”hadaka no tsukiai” which literally means hanging out together naked. It implies an open and down to the bone kind of communication as opposed to the more formal communication that you normally have in Japan, and especially in Kyoto. All inhibitions stripped away, perhaps. They told me both how to cook it and which kind their families preferred. Unfortunately I don’t remember any of the details. My main takeaway was that miso soup was different for everyone depending both on the ingredients and the type of miso paste(s) used.

Today’s miso soup: What a relief it was to wake up to cooler weather and lower humidity. I immediately thought of an autumnal miso soup. But that’s rushing it, right? So I leaned just a bit into autumn with a simple soup of carrots, shiitake and green onion as a garnish. The orange and brown does beckon to autumn, doesn’t it!

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Meat and potatoes

While browsing miso soup recipes online, I found a miso soup with Canadian bacon and potatoes. I was intrigued. I’ve never had miso soup with Canadian bacon or ham in it, but I have seen meat in miso soup before. In fact, one of my favorite Japanese dishes is a miso stew with pork, sweet potato, shiitake, and other autumnal ingredients. I used to make it on Halloween, because the longer it sits on the stove, the richer the flavor becomes. Whether we were rushing to the door to hand out treats, or out on the streets ourselves, it was always on a low simmer. (By the way, miso soup, in contrast, should never be at a boiling point once the miso is added).

So I thought I’d give the Canadian bacon and potato miso soup a try. To my great surprise, it was delicious. But it has one more ingredient—celery leaves! And that was just the icing on the cake for me. The celery leaves gave it the zing that went so well with the down-homeyness of the potatoes and ham. Definitely added to the list of my favorites.

Today’s miso soup: Black Forest ham, potatoes and celery leaves. What’s important here is how you cut the ingredients. The potatoes are in small chunks as opposed to slices. It’s a method of cutting called rangiri. You can find a demonstration of rangiri here. For the ham, ideally I would have had circular slices and quartered them. And the celery leaves, which are almost more of a garnish should be chopped finely. Cook until potatoes are tender and then the ham is added, followed immediately by the miso. The celery leaves don’t enter the bowl until the bowl is on the table!

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Green on Green

Today we celebrated my birthday at work with a delicious chocolate cake.

It was a longer work day than I expected, and since lunch was the cake I was feeling a little guilty. So today’s miso soup was pretty green.

There is a trick to putting greens in miso soup. You don’t want them to turn an ugly color and you don’t want them to discolor the broth. If they are leafy enough, you can put them in right before you add the miso, or even afterwards if you think the residual heat will warm them enough. Or, you can cook them separately and add them at the very end.

Today’s miso soup: A quick one using just baby bok-choy and Chinese peapods. I thought about adding scallions, but it would have overpowered these types of greens.

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No disruptions here

I love Japanese food. That is, I love the Japanese food that I ate when I first went to Japan in 1976. Things have changed. Fusion has come to be common in our world. I do not like fusion in my Japanese food. I will grumble if I have to eat it. Just give me plain old Japanese food. That is not to say that I don’t appreciate 洋食 or youshoku which is Western style Japanese food. For example, when I attended Tsuji Cooking School in Japan, the first lesson was a hamburger (blush). But it was not an American hamburger; it was a  yoshoku hamburger. In short, this means that it had a lot of filler including finely chopped onions and bread soaked in milk. The onions got sautéed until they were soft before you added them to the meat. I’m pretty sure that we used half ground pork and half ground beef. It also was served with a “demi-glace” (made from catsup and Worcestershire sauce) rather than on a bun. That was okay, although it was kind of a production. Nonetheless, Yoshoku is not fusion.

There is at least one other 365 miso site. You can find it here. Sorry, but it is in Japanese. It was thoughtfully created (in 2006) to be a searchable database of miso soup. You can search by season, type of ingredients, or just by keyword. It is intriguing. But it is not all appealing to me. In today’s language I’d call some of these recipes disruptions. I am more of a traditionalist when it comes to miso soup, I doubt I’ll be disrupting my miso soup much this year.

Miso soup with gyoza? Maybe….  With kimchi? Thank you… no.  I also do not think I will ever be able to eat zucchini in miso soup, somehow….

Today’s miso soup: Traditional, simple and filling with daikon, aburage and green onions. Note that the daikon is cut into quarters. It balances well with the strips of aburage.

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So, I wanted to do a 365 thing

I love 365 stuff be it books, blogs, lists, almanacs, pithy calendars, whatever. I’ve always wanted to do a 365. And I am 59 years old today so as they say in Japanese, キリがいいです。It’s good timing. I also want to do an expedition. And I want to save my health before I hit the big one next time.

If the internet says it, it’s true. Maybe there are people who still believe it. But what I do believe is that if you put yourself out there and say something, you’re going to pressure yourself to do a little better on persevering. Truthfully, I suck at New Year’s Resolutions. Who doesn’t? And I have had idea-itis my whole life. I do not seem like someone who can do a 365. It’s more likely to be a 273. I’ll get sick, I’ll travel, I’ll give up, or I will wander off-course and never come back.

So, miso soup? It’s been done before, I’m sure. At least I’m sure it has been done in Japan. A different miso soup for each day is a big premise of Japanese cooking and life. Since I make miso soup the old-fashioned way (not measuring anything and going by taste) my miso soup WILL be different everyday. I could not make it the same each day even if I tried and used the exact same ingredients. The big question is, can I really make it EVERY day?

Today’s miso soup: Onions, aburage (that’s thin deep-fried tofu), carrots, baby bok choy.

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