For the second edition of “Food That Makes America great,” I bring to you a well-known classic but of a lesser-hailed and lesser-known immigrant group.
While at least one restaurant in most American towns serves some version of Japanese miso soup, it’s often overlooked and misunderstood: The Jan Brady of soups. And, while most of us have visited that local Japanese or Asian-themed restaurant and eaten miso soup prior to a meal of sushi, most of us have not thought to create this unpolished gem for our own dinner table.
I tell you Hengies, you are missing out. Homemade miso soup is an umami marvel. Like most Japanese food, it’s decidedly delicious yet nutritious, exotic yet simplistic, comforting yet beautiful. Warming, yet appropriate even in summer. I assure you, cooks, miso soup is an established masterpiece worthy of your undivided culinary attention.
I learned to create this stunning example of Japanese cookery decades ago from my Japanese aunt. The ingredients, while few, were hard to get then, and required a trip to a specialty Asian market. Now, anything can be ordered over the internet and sent to your home, even if you reside on the far reaches of civilization. So, no excuses, people. Just order the bonito and kombu and be done with it. You will understand.
While it’s true that even many Japanese cooks will create miso base stock with prepared dashi, I urge you to make your own. It’s shockingly easy and the results are tenfold over the powdered stuff.
Homemade Miso Soup
Make the dashi (soup stock):
Set to boil 6 cups of water with two approximately 6” pieces of kombu seaweed. When boiling, add about 3/4 cup of bonito dried fish flakes. Remove from heat, and let the mixture steep like a tea for about 10-15 minutes. You can add more or less kombu or bonito to the water and steep for more or less time to receive a stronger or weaker flavor. While gauging this takes a bit of experience, even miso soup novices can start this process by tasting the dashi broth during various stages of cooking and steeping.
When the dashi reaches your desired level of tasty sea goodness, strain the mixture. Some cooks save the used kombu and bonito for other purposes, but let’s just keep to one purpose today. If you become advanced in your Japanese cookery, you will invariably seek out those uses.
Set your strained dashi aside. When almost ready to serve your soup, heat the dashi in a large pot. Dissolve ½ cup of traditional red miso paste into the dashi. Again, you can use more or less depending on taste. While miso comes in different “colors,” I prefer red for my soup. But I encourage you to experiment with different types. I also prefer a stronger-tasting miso soup, so I err on the side of more miso. As with the dashi, the amount of ingredients and strength depend on personal tastes, so you may need to experiment a couple of times to reach your own level of perfection.
The accompaniments to miso soup can vary by personal taste, but I prefer traditional additions of chopped scallions, straw mushrooms, cubed firm tofu, and wakame seaweed. Important note: The wakame must be soaked in cold water for about 10 minutes to reconstitute it before adding to the soup. Understand that the wakame will expand when soaking, and feel free to cut it into smaller, bite-sized pieces if necessary.
Add accompaniments to the warmed dashi once the miso has completely dissolved. Add soba tsuyu sauce to taste and/or serve on the side with the soup (I start with 2 tablespoons). The tsuyu is optional, but adds an additional spark of amazing umami and salty flavor.
Additional accompaniment ideas include baby corn, shredded carrots, shredded daikon radish, and snow pea pods. But here you can be creative, so use whatever vegetables you like or have on hand.