Mention the word ‘miso’ and most people think Japanese soup, the kind served in elegant bowls for breakfast, as a comforting savoury aside at dinner or as an easy meal in itself – a classic office worker’s lunch. Taking the form of a paste made from fermented soybeans, along with rice, barley and a variety of other grains, its cheap practicality has made it a cornerstone of Japanese cooking since at least the 14th century – and possibly well before. But soup is just one of this staple’s many uses.
“[Miso] has the most ‘complete’ flavour,” says former MasterChef winner Tim Anderson in his new book Nanban: Japanese Soul Food. “It’s salty, umami-rich, sweet and a little sour, with lots of complex aromas running the gamut from fruity to earthy.”
There are numerous varieties all with different flavours, colours and textures, depending on the ingredients used and the length of the fermentation process – anything from a few days to several years. But most can be placed in one of three categories. White (shiro) miso is light, creamy and piquant, as a result of a short fermentation; red (aka) miso is matured for longer, making it darker, richer and more complex; mixed (awase) miso is somewhere in the middle, a fruity paste with deep caramel back notes.
“This is the most versatile option,” suggests Tim who uses miso in everything from noodle broths to hot and cold soups, spicy miso butter, puddings (like miso caramel ice cream) and this ‘Kyushu-style ceviche’ dish of cured mackerel from Japan’s Saga prefecture.
Recipe: Kyushu ceviche Serves 4-6
For the fish:
400-500g mackerel fillets (approx 1 fillet per serving)
200ml rice vinegar
½ tsp salt
2 tsp mirin (rice wine)
½ tsp soy sauce
For the sweet miso sauce:
15g toasted sesame seeds
40ml curing liquid (see method)
1 tsp sesame oil
65g white or awase miso
For the veg:
½ daikon (mooli), peeled
100g carrot, peeled
Salt, to sprinkle on vegetables
10g chives, finely chopped
Sesame seeds, to garnish
1. Remove mackerel’s pin bones and tough outer skin.
2. Cut mackerel into bite-size chunks; put in bowl.
3. Mix remaining fish ingredients together, ensuring salt and sugar have dissolved, and pour over fish.
4. Refrigerate for four hours, tossing the fish after two. Drain and reserve curing liquid.
5. Crush sesame seeds to rough powder. Mix well with remaining sauce ingredients. The dressing needn’t be totally smooth, just well mixed.
6. Cut daikon and carrot into thin strips (8mm wide, 2mm thick). Salt liberally. Drain for one hour. Rinse in cold water. Cut cucumber lengthwise, remove seeds, slice into thin half-moons.
7. Toss the fish with the veg and the sweet miso sauce. Pile into small bowls, garnish with chives and sesame seeds.
This recipe is taken from Nanban: Japanese Soul Food (Square Peg, £25) by Tim Anderson. Photography by Paul Winch-Furness