Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes. Our ongoing mission: to just have a good meal, and help you do the same. I’m your Sushi Samaritan, Jon O’Guin. Today’s post is the deliverance of some seeds I sowed several weeks ago, with a trip to Uwajimaya Portland. Today, we’re making Miso Soup, which turns out to be both a great success, and a painful failure. If you wish to skip the story for how we reached so dual-natured a dish, just click this link to get to the recipe. For the rest of us, let’s talk China.
History is Quite a Messy Affair, Historically
Why, for a dish about Japanese cuisine, do we need to talk about China? Well, to answer that question I need you to join me out here in a region scientists call ‘thin fucking ice”. See, at an objective level, we need to do so for a similar reason that last week we had to talk about a Filipino dish with a Spanish name, and last Thursday I went on a small rant about how ‘pizza’ as an Italian dish relies on components and ingredients from other nations for its creation: because the modern Japanese Miso is shaped, as far as historians can tell, by Chinese cultural exchange in the 600’s or so.
This is something of a problem, because, as many people probably know, Japan and China view each other with roughly the same level of respect and hatred as England and France. You know how it is, neighboring empires, over the centuries. A few war crimes here, an invasion or two there. Oooh. There was that ice creaking. That reminds us that this isn’t something we should make too much light of, nor dwell too long on, so just let me make it clear that blithely telling Japanese people that several cornerstones of their cuisine are based on them using Chinese ‘innovations’ is a…bold social choice in a great many circles.
It should be noted that Picture/Caption Jon has no respect for the thinness of the ice we’re on, as evidenced by this choice of art and joke.
From what the evidence suggests, ancient Japan had miso-like products, and eventually got their hands on soybeans from Chinese merchants or visitors to make something closer to modern miso, but remarkably more coarse. Eventually, the Chinese came to Japan with a product called hisio, which was a smoother version of the misos Japan was making, and Japan hopped on-board and ran with it. They would later do a similar thing with Chinese lamian noodles, renaming them ramen, but that’s a COMPLETELY different perilous topic.
Anyway, miso is super important for Japanese cuisine because of…ANOTHER very complicated topic, that can basically be boiled down to the ‘fact’ that Miso is the “cheese of Japan”.
Tofu is also the cheese of Japan, because things are complicated.
I mentioned this back in my tofu post but for a quick refresher: due to a lot of not-fully-understood/we-don’t-have-time-for-them reasons, milk products never really took off in East Asia (hotter general climate means faster spoilage, wetter terrain means smaller livestock, etc etc). However, Cheese and dairy products have a very useful PURPOSE in the broader scope of human evolution: they give us a non-slaughter-based protein source. As a modified version of the old slut-shaming stand-by could go, “Why kill the cow when the milk is free?” Oh, look, more thin ice. I am ALL up in this shit today.
So, finding soybeans, and their remarkably high protein, created a viable alternative in East Asia. A 100g serving of miso has half the protein of steak, with a third of the fat, and 2/3rds the calories…with the slight trade-off of having 155% of your daily recommended sodium intake, which is why you don’t eat a half-cup (100 grams is around 3.6 ounces, or just over 0.45 cups.) of miso at a time. But since it packs a lot of flavor into that serving, you can add it to sauces, spreads, and as seasoning in a ton of things.
Hence miso soup, a mixture of soup broth, miso, and a few ingredients that is a HUGE deal in Japan. How huge? 75% of Japanese people eat miso soup at least once a day. That’s…insane. Like, there’s really nothing to compare it to in America except cheese. I bet around 75% of Americans eat cheese once a day. On burgers, in salads, in soups, on veggies…now replacing every slice of cheese, every bit of feta, with a bowl of soup. It’s a cultural juggernaut. Miso Soup is to Japanese cuisine what PASTA is to Italy’s.
Most Americans can’t even Name an Italian dish without some kind of pasta.
Which is why it’s probably a good thing it’s so easy to make, if you’ve got the right ingredients. What are those ingredients, and where do you get them? Ah, now there’s the rub.
Rubbing on Japanese Ingredients is Rarely Advisable
You’re not the boss of me, title Jon. Alright, kids, like I said, this soup is soup-er easy if you’ve got the right ingredients, so what are they? Well, a traditional miso soup contains:
Dashi (rhymes with “washy”, like in “wishy-washy”)
As that might illustrate to you, firstly, we’re dealing with a Matroyshka situation, where we need to explain the things that MAKE UP the thing, before we can explain the thing. Luckily, since the meal is so simple, we have plenty of time to waste doing so.
FIRST INGREDIENT: DASHI. You might say “Jon, isn’t ‘miso’ the most important ingredient in Miso Soup?” to which the answer is, “I don’t know, do you want it to be a SOUP? Because Dashi is the go-to broth of Japanese cuisine. And it is EVERYWHERE. Miso and Dashi are basically the mother sauces of Japanese cuisine: they’re how you make everything ELSE.
So what goes in Dashi? Well, there’s several options. See, Dashi is basically just the Japanese word for broth…but it’s also got a rather set ingredient list. Specifically, Dashi is typically made of Kombu, and Katsuobushi. DEEPER IN TO THE WOODEN DOLLS WE GO.
That’s what I meant by “Matroyshka”, by the way: that’s what the stacking wooden dolls are called.
Kombu (Kohm-bu) is a type of dried kelp that’s quite rich in glutamates, which produce umami. In fact, the scientific PROOF of Umami was derived from a distillation of kombu liquids. There are actually several varieties, and Japanese connoisseurs know which ones to use for which types of broth, but there is a standard one, often sold in Asian markets as just “kombu” or “dashi kombu”.
Katsuobushi (kaht-swO-boo-she) is a little more complicated, as is its role. The thing itself is pretty easy to explain: katsuobushi is a dried, smoked, and fermented block of skipjack tuna, or (if you want to save a bit of money) bonito. The process is a little unappealing to describe, but the end product is quite flavorful. It’s very smoky and meaty. The best replacement/parallel for it in purely American terms is either bacon or beef jerky. IN most American markets, it’ll be sold pre-shaved in bags: the original meat feels like a block of wood.
Its role in the dish is only notable because, as noted, true katsuobushi can be a little pricey (the whole bricks, a bag of shavings these days is like, $2. Further, the exact flavors (as well as the necessity of including fish) don’t appeal to all Japanese palettes or moral frameworks. Thus, in Japan, it’s not uncommon to find Dashis made JUST with Kombu or with Shiitakes in order to create vegetarian broths, or with iriko/niboshi: dried baby sardines.
Why do they have two words for dried baby sardines? I don’t know, how many words does English have for “chips”?
Once you’ve got your dashi shorted, it’s time for the miso: there are actually quite a few different kinds of miso, aged in different ways and made using different products, so this can seem a daunting choice. However, you can definitely make perfectly fine miso soup by just finding a container of ‘white’ or ‘red’ miso, skipping over the other options. (As a general rule, the darker the miso, the saltier and more complex it will taste. So White Miso will make gentler soup than Red.)
Lastly, the “other”. Due to cultural ideals that we’ll talk about on Thursday, Japan doesn’t like to be SUPER dogmatic about what goes into EVERY bowl of Miso soup, because they prefer their recipes to be seasonal. The only thing they really stick to is A: there should be some kind of contrast between ingredients, and B: there shouldn’t be too many. Miso soup is a PART of the meal, it is not a meal itself. (It can’t be, the rice is. We’ll talk about it Thursday.) A classic pairing is negi, a type of Japanese onion, with Tofu, as one is strongly flavored, and the other very mild. Wakame (wah-kah-may) seaweed, which floats, and heavier ingredients that sink are another common pairing.
The ‘classic’ American Miso Soup bowl has kind of mixed those points into its present form. The negi becomes the similar green onion, and you add Tofu and Wakame seaweed. If I had to guess, I’d assume those ingredients are because they form a rather ‘neat’ cross-section/representation of the “contrasts” idea: there’s the strong green onion, the mild tofu, the seaweed and tofu both float erratically, so they’re bobbing in an out…also, they all dry well, and can be made into instant soup packages…
Wakame, for instance, dries up SUPER small.
Anywho, the hardest one for me to find was the Wakame seaweed, and by “hard” I mean “I forgot to check the first Asian market for it, so I had to go to another one”. If you need help, most markets have the item’s name in ‘English’ (at least, in the letters you know how to read) on the price tag. And you can always ask if you can’t find it, and someone should be able to give you an answer. I included the pronunciations of the words in case of this. If you can’t find katsuobushi or kombu, there is instant Dashi mix you can buy.
The Coward’s Way out.
Alright, with the components assembled, let’s make this thing!
I Love it When a Plan Comes Together. Despite Hating Plans.
Now, I said this was easy, and I am not a liar, despite the many falsehoods I tell. This entire recipe is just heating a pot of water, and adding things in and taking them out.
I’d argue that the most complicated part is the sheer number of measurements you have to make. This is a very modular arrangement, making this many cups of broth for this many bowls, and this much Miso per bowl etc. Which sounds rough, but really boils down to “how many people are you cooking for?” Once you know that, you can start tossing stuff in.
Specifically, you start with the Kombu. Different cooks will do this differently, but here’s the pattern I followed take your kombu, and cut off the proper amount for your broth needs (see the recipe). Some recipes call for wiping off the kombu with a slightly damp paper towel or cloth: this is just to be certain there’s no sand on the kombu, which isn’t entirely necessary given modern production facilities, but hey, if you wanna clean it, go for it. If you do, don’t scrub off the whitish dust: that’s not mold, it’s glutamate crystals. Then, take some scissors and snip the seaweed edges for a little more surface area/access.
My cuts are so hard to see in this pic, I legitimately thought for a moment that I took the picture before cutting the kombu.
Plop that snipped sheet of seaweed into a cold pot of water. Depending on your time constraints, you can do a lot of things here. The longer the seaweed is in the pot, the more flavor it’s going to give. So you can soak that kombu for up to 24 hours in the fridge if you want. Most recipes recommend letting it sit for at least 30 minutes. Me, I didn’t let it sit at all, because my family is real bad at planning, and we decided to have me throw this recipe together in under an hour before I had a rehearsal. So I just turned the pot to just over medium heat.
The thing is, you don’t want to BOIL the kombu. That would make it bitter and slimy. No, you want to take it out of the water just as it starts to simmer. Then, you take out the kombu and set it aside. You can technically re-use it for another batch tomorrow, if you have enough ingredients. Next up, the Katsuobushi. You want about 30 grams of flakes (about 3 cups, not packed) for a quart of water.
As I say so often in these things: I assure you, despite appearances, this is succeeding.
Dump it into the simmering water, and let it bubble for about 30 seconds. No, I’m not joking. This only really ‘cooks’ for 30 seconds. Then, take it off the heat, and let it sit for about 10 minutes, so the katsuobushi can infuse the broth. After 10 minutes, you can scoop out the katsuobushi, squeeze the excess liquid back into the broth, and bag it up, because you can also use THIS for a second batch of dashi the next day if you want.
By the way, we’re done with that. This is now a quart of dashi.
With a little teabag of soggy salty fish chips.
To make this into miso soup is STUPIDLY easy. Slice some green onions thinly, and get your wakame and miso ready. I made what’s called ‘in the biz’ awasemiso, because I’m a bad ass. To do this, you take two types of miso... and mix them. Yeah, I just didn’t have enough red miso, so I added the remnants of our White miso from our Miso-Gochujang Pulled Pork to the container and mixed them up.
Shit, did I tell you to put the dashi back on the burner? Do that. However much you’re planning on using (check the recipe for details) You want to get it simmering again. Then, you toss in the dried Wakame seaweed. This stuff looks really small, but it’ll absorb the broth and expand in SECONDS.
Once the pot’s simmering, and the wakame’s rehydrated, take the pot OFF the heat, and add the miso, stirring to dissolve it. See, miso’s fermented material means that it doesn’t react super-well to heat. You should never boil miso soup after the miso’s in it. You can MAYBE get away with a minute or two of simmering, but most instructions say to dissolve it with some extra dashi beforehand, and pour it in off the heat. Then toss in the tofu and green onions. Stir, and…you’re done. That’s it. If you made your dashi ahead of time, it would take maybe 8-10 minutes to make fresh miso soup whenever you wanted. WITH the dashi, it took about 30. And the results are pretty spectacular.
It almost has a yin-yang pattern, doesn’t it? I didn’t even notice that until now.
The only complaint we had is that our guideline for how much seaweed to add was easily TWICE as high as it should have been. Which makes a sinister amount of sense, as we got it off the bag of seaweed itself. Trying to get eaten QUICKLY, eh? Anywho, with less seaweed, this would be a pitch-perfect rendition of a standard American Miso Soup. Which is why what happened next was so tragic.
As I mentioned earlier, I was rushing to get this all hammered out before going to rehearsal. I had literally just bought the wakame that afternoon, and my mother realized we didn’t have dinner plans, so she suggested that my brother pick up sushi on the way home, and I make the soup. And while I was rushing a little to get things done, it was looking like I was going to nail the whole thing. I’d get to rehearsal maybe 5 minutes late, the soup worked out great, and…I dumped my bowl straight into my lap.
The only upside to this is how tall I look in this picture.
Now, were I to guess, I’d say my bowl had, in the 6-7 minutes since it had stopped simmering, dropped to somewhere around 120 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees, for my metric mateys).when it then dropped into my lap. Thus, while it was moderately painful, it was more embarrassing and frustrating than truly dangerous. It soaked my shirt, pants, underwear, splashed on my socks, I had to fully change my outfit before I could come back to the table, which my family had cleaned while I was changing. My mother tells me that trying to pick up hot silken tofu is a task of notable distaste.
My brother and mother were kind enough to donate some of their soup into my bowl to cover the lost liquids, which I slurped down quickly before slightly limping out the door to get to rehearsal late. Which is the perfect contrast for this soup I’ve made: the perfection of its execution, and the utter failure of its consumption. Truly, I’ve started to grasp the secrets of Japanese cooking. Or maybe that’s the burns talking. In any case, I recommend you try this yourself some time. Except the ‘spilling soup on yourself bit’. That part’s fine to leave out.
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Now let's serve up the
Home-made Miso Soup
Serves 2 (can be scaled)
3 cups DASHI (see below)
1 tbsp dried Wakame seaweed
4 tbsp Miso
2 scallions, thinly sliced
½ to 1 cup diced silken (or medium) tofu, to preference.
Heat Dashi to a simmer. Add wakame seaweed, and allow to simmer up to 3 minutes.
Remove from heat, add miso, and stir to dissolve. Add Scallions and tofu, and stir to incorporate.
Divide into 2 bowls, and serve.
Makes 1 quart
4 cups water
1 4” by 4” square of kombu
3 cups of katsuobushi flakes, unpacked (roughly 30 grams)
Fill a pot with water and kombu. If possible, let sit at least 30 minutes, or up to 24 hours in the refrigerator.
Bring to a bare simmer over medium heat, and remove the kombu, retaining for another use if desired.
Increase heat slightly, to bring to a light boil. Add the Katsuobushi, and let boil for 30 seconds to a minute. Remove from the heat and let steep for 10 minutes.
Remove the Katsuobushit, retaining for another use if desired, and let Dashi cool.