THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Me so in love with everything soy

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As we’re approaching that time of year when the Nichi Bei Foundation hosts the annual Northern California Soy & Tofu Festival — this year it’s an in-person event at the San Francisco Japantown Peace Plaza, July 2 from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. — it’s time to discuss all things soy. Well, over the past several years, I’ve discussed many things soy, from liquid soybeans, to pungent fermented soybeans to fresh soybeans, even giving you a recipe for soy oyako donburi (edamame and tofu-based as they are mother and child).

However, while I may have touched on the fermented paste, it never received top billing in a column. That is until today; we’ll discuss the versatile fermented soybean paste also known as miso.

The Origin of Miso
It’s unknown exactly when the Japanese first consumed what we think of as traditional miso. There is evidence that back in the Neolithic era, someone in Japan made a grain and fish-based miso, but it was more like the fish and soybean sauces that are common throughout Asia. It wasn’t until the eighth century that people described making fermented soybeans, but the dish used whole beans, so they were more likely akin to natto. It wasn’t until the Muromachi era (1300s to 1500s) that Buddhist monks started grinding the soybeans into a paste, creating what we probably recognize as modern miso paste.

Modern miso basically comes in three “flavors”: white or shiromiso, red or akamiso and mixed or awasemiso. And while miso simply requires soybeans, koji starter and salt, it often contains other grains, such as barley, rice, buckwheat, millet, wheat and even hemp seeds. Some countries even create miso from amaranth, quinoa, garbanzo beans, adzuki beans and corn.

Making Miso
Creating miso simply requires cooked soybeans, a koji starter and salt. The cooking method for the soybean depends on the type of miso one desires. For shiromiso, the soybeans are boiled, whereas to create akamiso, you have to steam the soybeans as steaming soybeans facilitates the production of darker pigments during fermentation.

Having a greater quantity of soybeans in the mash also facilitates color production, so most shiromiso also have a higher percentage of rice and barley compared to soybeans. That’s why the flavor is described as sweet with light umami qualities compared to akamiso. Shiromiso is also fermented just on the order of days compared to akamiso which can be fermented for more than a year.

The common denominator to both types of miso is the use of a koji starter, namely the mold Aspergillus oryzae. Yes, this is the same koji starter that’s used in the production of sake, shochu and shoyu. A. oryzae contains amylolytic enzymes that breakdown starches in rice, sweet potato and barley that allow yeast to ferment the simple sugars created to make sake and shochu. The proteolytic enzymes breakdown proteins to amino acids, which is why shoyu and miso have umami qualities. Of the 11 grams of protein in 100 grams of miso, about 16 percent of the amino acids occur as glutamic acid — the same glutamic acid in MSG. However, MSG contains just glutamic acid whereas miso contains 17 other amino acids as well as a host of other flavor compounds which is why miso has a rounded umami quality.

Once the fermented paste has reached the desired flavor profile, salt is then added to stop the fermentation process. Which is why miso is salty though the salinity is balanced by the sweet, earthy, fruity and savory qualities.

The New Tako Poké
I used to consume my fair share of traditional shoyu tako poké made in Hawai‘i, until I came across Marukai Wholesale Mart’s Miso Tako Poké many years ago. In this version, they tossed the cooked tako in that same sumiso sauce that used to accompany slices of cooked tako that I remember eating at family get-togethers, but the tako and sauce were tossed together for ease in consumption. Up until last year, we always purchased at least a pound of miso tako poké when visiting Marukai. That changed after I read an article that octopus may dream while asleep, and also after watching videos people shared on social media documenting interactions between octopus and scuba divers that they recognize. It made both Ms. S. and me re-evaluate our desire to consume an organism that was pet-like with intelligence usually not associated with invertebrates. But we still enjoy the sumiso sauce to this day, just in the form of Miso Tofu Poké.

Miso Tofu Poké. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Miso Tofu Poké
1 package of deep-fried tofu cubed into bite-sized pieces
1 package of extra firm tofu cubed into bite-sized pieces
1 cup shelled edamame
Sliced green onions (including the white parts) from a small bunch

If deep fried tofu isn’t available in your neighborhood, simply use two blocks of extra firm tofu.

Su-Miso Sauce
¼ cup white miso
3 tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 tbsp grated ginger
1 1/2 tbsp sugar

Dissolve the sugar into the rice wine vinegar, then add the miso and grated ginger until a smooth sauce is achieved. Toss the sumiso sauce with the tofu, edamame and sliced green onions.

Not Just for Butterfish
I’m sure most of you know that one of the perfect marriages of food is butterfish marinated in miso, then grilled just until the flakes of fish start to separate. I mentioned previously that I skipped many karate training sessions just because Mom had started cooking butterfish before I left the house for training. But at some point, butterfish approached the cost of bluefin tuna and everyone in Hawai‘i knows that retailers hide the “tips and toes,” the puny pieces of fish that are mostly bone and fins under the full-sized pieces just like the “tips and toes” in a tray of King and Snow crab. Therefore, we now miso marinate fresh salmon, even slicing it as sashimi after an overnight marination or keeping it marinated for five to seven days, then cook as we would butterfish.

Or you can simply make miso chicken (even as chicken prices rise) as a substitute.

Miso Chicken
4 chicken thighs
Cooking oil
2 tbsp red miso
3 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp sake or awamori
1 tsp mirin
2 tbsp soup stock (I mix ¼ tsp of hondashi in ½ cup of water)
2 tbsp water
¼ tsp MSG (optional)

Heat oil then brown chicken. Combine all the other ingredients and pour over the chicken. Cover and simmer until the chicken is tender, about 20 minutes.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a recently retired clinical pharmacist and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster. He writes from Kane’ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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