Miso hungry

Photo by Jeremy Keith
(Photo by Jeremy Keith)

Andreae Prozesky takes on miso, the "superfood."

Those of you who know me have probably been witness to my occasional moments of anti-soy ranting. Everybody in North America is convinced that soymilk and tofu will save them from harm, but it’s just not true. I take offence to the deification of the soybean. Gets me all riled. I do not believe in superfoods.
And yet, I will attest that miso, despite its soy-ful nature, does wondrous things. Especially if, like me, you’ve spent the last month on a steady diet of chocolate, cheese, hot turkey sandwiches, and alcohol.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting miso, here’s a little intro: Miso is a salty-sweet, kind of nutty-tasting, kind of buttery-tasting paste made of fermented soybeans. It’s a Japanese foodstuff that comes in different varieties and degrees of saltiness. If you’ve been to a sushi restaurant, chances are that you’ve had miso soup for a starter. Your standard miso soup is basically a spoonful of miso dissolved in a broth (dashi) made with a combination of seaweed (kombu) and dried fish flakes (bonito). I know this doesn’t sound anywhere as delicious as it actually is. The resulting soup is deeply flavourful and really quite invigorating.
People marketing miso to the masses insist that the stuff can prevent cancer, keep you from aging, and sort out all your digestive troubles. An old friend of mine swore that miso soup was a cure for all the monthly woes a gal could suffer. Even better: one website I found has a section on miso’s ability to protect individuals from the harmful effects of tobacco: apparently, “miso soup is for smokers” is an old Japanese saying, likely originating from the 17th-century practice of using miso soup to clean tar-sticky pipes. The site suggests that the B-vitamin content of miso (which is very high indeed) can protect smokers from nagging coughs. Miso has also been deemed helpful in treating people who have been exposed to radiation. After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, exports of miso from Japan to Europe rose dramatically. 
What makes miso better for most people than the other soy foods is that it’s been fermented. The fermentation process turns otherwise limp and uninteresting soy pulp into a happy colony of enzymes. The enzymes, along with the delightful “good bacteria” (like the kind in yogurt) help your digestive system do its thing. Which is excellent if you’ve got all kinds of sugar and saturated fat and Red Dye Number Three gunking you up.
Soup is the easiest way to consume miso; in Japan, I’m told, people drink miso soup for breakfast as a way to inoculate themselves against the potential ills of the day.
But miso makes great sauces, dressings, dips, marinades, and what have you. My New Year’s detox plan is to indulge on great bowls of brown rice, steamed broccoli, and ginger-miso sauce, all sprinkled with delicious little golden-toasted sesame seeds. The sauce is easy to make, and brown rice and broccoli together make nutritional magic. If I should get bored of the view from my own kitchen, perhaps I’ll wander downtown for some soup and sushi, or over to The Sprout for some of their Miso Hungry soup. With some miso gravy and something to dip in it on the side.
And if this is starting to sound a little superfoods-y, forgive me. It’s just been so long since I’ve eaten anything that wasn’t made of sugar. Give me a month and I’ll be back to eating everything, including miso, in something like moderation.

Ginger-miso sauce
¼ cup white or red miso*
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 ½ tablespoon rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 – 2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/8 – ¼ teaspoon chili flakes
juice of ½ lime
2 tablespoons water

Whisk ingredients together. Some varieties of miso are quite salty, so do a taste-test and adjust honey and lime juice accordingly. Makes about ¾ cup. You can store the sauce in the fridge for a week or so.

This sauce is very strongly flavoured, and might freak you out if you just lick it off the spoon. It wants some kind of starchy, vegetable-y foil. You can use it cold as a dressing for noodle salads (say, some rice noodles, julienned carrots, cucumber, radishes, etc.), or warmed over rice, or noodles, with vegetables (and maybe some cashews… yum…). For a warm dish, heat the sauce in a small pot on medium heat, stirring occasionally. Don’t let the sauce boil. High temperatures can kill the healthful bacteria in the miso.

* You can buy miso in Asian food shops, health food stores, and in the health food sections of the big supermarkets. It’s in the refrigerators, either in plastic tubs or squishy bags. Pungency and saltiness will vary by colour and brand; generally lighter miso is milder in flavour. Miso will keep in a sealed container in your fridge for months and months.

Send your questions, comments, suggestions and superfood miracle cures to dreae@thescope.ca