Five ways with miso

It’s a Japanese staple, but works across almost any cuisine. Here are five ways to use this highly versatile storecupboard staple, from a grilled veg glaze to a salted caramel alternative.

Thursday, April 30, 2020,
By Tim Anderson
Used sparingly, miso is a strong yet subtle seasoning, providing a solid whack of salt and ...
Used sparingly, miso is a strong yet subtle seasoning, providing a solid whack of salt and umami.
Photograph by StockFood

Sweet, juicy caramelised pineapple. A prime piece of cod, grilled to perfection. Piping hot soup on a cold, rainy day. These are the things that come to mind when I think of miso.

The flavour of miso is quintessentially Japanese, yet it’s also a highly versatile storecupboard staple that works wonders in pretty much any cuisine. Used sparingly, it’s a strong yet subtle seasoning, providing a solid whack of salt and umami. Used more generously, it provides complexity and depth, with aromas that range from fresh and fruity to earthy and intense. Welcome it into your kitchen and you’ll say goodbye to boring food forever.

It’s amazing how much flavour miso delivers, considering its humdrum ingredients, which are mainly soy beans and salt as well as grains like barley or rice. But this is the magic of koji mould, the ‘national fungus’ of Japan and one of the key flavour profiles of Japanese cuisine. As koji ferments beans into miso, it produces a huge range of volatile aroma compounds, similar to what happens to cheese as it ages.

Also like cheese, miso has countless varieties, but they fall broadly into two categories: white and red. White misos aren’t aged for very long, so their flavour is lighter, while red misos are aged for much longer and develop a richer flavour that’s not unlike black olives or balsamic vinegar. Get a jar of both, get to know them, and you’ll soon discover that miso is so much more than soup.

1. Caramel
If you like salted caramel (who doesn’t?), try adding miso to the sweet stuff instead of salt. Miso caramel has a salty-fruity-nutty flavour, and works particularly well with chocolate or bananas. 

2. Grilled veg
Miso sweetened with mirin becomes dengaku, a glaze most famously applied to grilled aubergines. It works on any grilled or roast veg, especially dense roots such as beets and turnips.

3. Butter
It might seem slightly unusual, but mixing butter with miso creates something seriously tasty. Try the mixture smeared on grilled sweetcorn or drizzled over scallops.

4. Game
Game isn’t often found in Japanese cookery, but when it is, it’s commonly seasoned with dark red miso, which works especially well as a marinade for grouse, pigeon or duck.

5. Pasta
A little dollop of miso adds depth and character to a whole variety of pasta dishes. Try adding a little white miso to your carbonara, or red miso to a rich, slow-cooked beef shin ragu.

Tim Anderson is chef-owner of Nanban restaurant in London, and the author of several cookbooks, including his latest, Vegan JapanEasy (£22, Hardie Grant).

Published in the April issue of National Geographic Traveller Food. 

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