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Miso: Japanese Comfort Food 

As soon as the mornings turned chilly enough to see your breath, my grandfather, who normally never lifted a chopstick in the kitchen, would commandeer the stove and scowl over a pot to make miso soup for our breakfast.

This was not the pale little bowl of cloudy broth and delicate cubes of tofu you get in Japanese restaurants. We were in upstate New York in a house that took forever to heat, so only something truly hearty was going to cut it. His face crumpled up like a paper bag while he chopped vegetables and stirred caramel-colored miso paste into the soup. They say a watched pot never boils, but Grandpa stared that pot down like a gangster until it was ready. My brother and I didn't dare ask when it would be done.

When it finally came to the table beside a hot bowl of white rice, it was heaven -- salty, earthy and a little thick at the bottom. Your entire body warmed, finally unclenching as you tipped the wooden bowl to your mouth. Sometimes he would grunt and nod at us while we scooped at the hot rice and soft vegetables with our chopsticks. Sometimes he would mutter about Americans eating cold cereal for breakfast. "Baka," he'd grumble, meaning foolish and/or crazy.

These days, it's me grimacing into a pot. My family doesn't love the angry cooking face, but they realize it's genetic, and they're willing to put up with it for the soup. Miso has that umami taste that satisfies in a way that no other broth does -- even with nothing but a little seaweed, it's food. For Japanese people, miso is the taste of home cooking, ofukuro-no-aji, mother's taste, or, in my case, curmudgeon grandfather's taste. It is part of what makes a Japanese meal complete, and it comes in infinite varieties, depending on what's in season and what's at hand. In Japan, it shows up in the most elegant restaurants, in public school lunches, and in chanko-nabe, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink hot pots eaten by hungry sumo wrestlers in training. On the northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido, where the sea actually freezes over in the winter, the locals favor miso ramen with a scoop of corn and a pat of butter. That's right, a pat of butter. It's very, very cold up there.

Miso paste is made from fermented soybeans and comes in three main varieties. Shiromiso (white) is mild and lighter brown, akamiso (red) is darker and stronger tasting, and awasemiso is a blend. All are low in calories and full of calcium, protein and isoflavones, which help cut the risk of some cancers. At the time, I thought my grandfather was just trying to keep me from eating Cap'n Crunch when he told me that eating miso soup kept people in Japan from getting radiation sickness after the bombing of Nagasaki. It turns out to be a pretty popular theory in Japan and elsewhere. But what I know for a fact is that miso soup is just the thing when you have a cold, a hangover, general tummy trouble or a broken heart. It's also inexpensive and easy to make, even if you have any of the aforementioned maladies. The most basic miso broth can be made by boiling dashi, Japanese fish broth (which is surprisingly un-fishy), and then mixing in about a tablespoon of miso per cup of liquid. You can whip up your own dashi with Bonito flakes and kombu seaweed, or you can just use instant, like I do. Vegetarians can substitute with kombu dashi, which is just as tasty and made only from the seaweed. In general, miso soup is forgiving, and you can adjust it to your taste as you go. Adding hunks of pumpkin or thinly sliced pork will make it marvelous, but it's still good with nothing but that sad half an onion in your fridge. Experiment, enjoy -- and try not to frown.

 

Hearty Winter Vegetable Miso Soup

3 1/2 cups dashi (follow package instructions)

1/2 small onion, sliced

1/2 carrot sliced on an angle into 1/8" thick ovals

1/2 turnip, quartered and sliced 1/8" thick

1/4 kabocha squash, peeled and cut into 3/4" chunks

1 potato, peeled, quartered and sliced 1/2" thick

1/2 package firm or soft tofu cut into 3/4" squares

3 rounded tablespoons white miso

3 stalks green onion, thinly sliced

 

In a large pot, bring the dashi to a boil and add the onion, carrot, and turnip. Simmer for about five minutes, until the carrots are starting to become tender. Add the potato, kabocha and tofu. Simmer for another seven to eight minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. In a small bowl, blend about a cup of the hot broth with the miso paste. Add the miso mixture back into the pot and turn the heat to low for another two minutes. Divide into four bowls and garnish with green onions.

 

Tonjiru Udon

4 cups dashi (follow package instructions)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 small onion, sliced

1/2 lb. thinly sliced 2" strips of pork shoulder (freeze it for an hour before slicing)

3" stalk of burdock root, peeled and sliced diagonally into 1/8" thick ovals

1 carrot, peeled and sliced diagonally into 1/8" thick ovals

1/2 cup daikon radish, peeled and sliced into 1/8" thick semi-circles

1 potato, peeled, quartered and sliced 1/2" thick

3 packages fresh udon noodles

4 rounded tablespoons white miso

3 stalks green onion, thinly sliced

 

Heat the oil in a dutch oven or large pot, and saute the onions until they soften. Add the pork and brown. Add the carrots, burdock and daikon and saute for about two minutes, then add the potatoes. Pour the dashi into the pot and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for five minutes. Continue simmering until the potatoes are almost tender, and then add the udon noodles. Use chopsticks to gently separate the noodles and cook for two minutes. Reduce the heat to low. Ladle about a cup of hot broth from the pot into a small bowl and blend in the miso before returning it to the pot. Stir well to incorporate the miso completely. Divide into four bowls and serve garnished with green onion.

 

Ginger-Miso Chicken

(This uses miso as a marinade, and it's great either on the grill or on the stovetop.)

2 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated or finely minced

1 tablespoon sake

3 tablespoons white miso

1/4 cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon brown sugar

3 stalks green onion, trimmed and thinly sliced

4 chicken thighs

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

 

Mix the ginger, miso, soy sauce, brown sugar and half the green onions in a medium bowl or plastic zipper bag. Add the chicken and coat thoroughly. Marinate in the refrigerator for two to four hours. Heat oil in a frying pan and cook chicken on medium heat for 20 minutes, turning halfway through. Sprinkle with remaining green onion and serve.

 Jennifer Fumiko Cahill lives in Eureka, where she writes poetry and fiction, and blogs as "The Girl Who Ate Tokyo." 

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