Miso, known as “fermented soybean paste” in English, is one of the most versatile products you can find in Japanese and Korean markets. It’s sold either by itself, to be used in home cooking, or already incorporated into soups, salad dressings, and sauces.
Like soy milk and tofu, miso begins with soaked, steamed, and ground or chopped soybeans. A certain mold, known as A spergillus oryzae in Latin, koji in Japanese, and “a certain mold” in English, is added to the heavily salted soybeans, either by themselves or mixed with rice, barley, or chickpeas. The Japanese use the same mold to make sake.
Traditionally, the fermentation is allowed to proceed for two or three years, until the desired intensity of flavor and color is achieved. Today, the process may be hurried by heating and other accelerating techniques. The role of the salt is to prevent the mixture from spoilage by less friendly microorganisms while the A spergillus, which doesn’t mind salt, works away at it.
There are dozens of kinds of miso, ranging in flavor from salty to sweet to salty-and-sweet, in color from ivory to coffee to dark brown, and in texture from smooth and creamy to lumpy. American chefs are having a field day experimenting with them, and you can, too. Try shiro, a light miso, or aka, a darker, heartier version.
Once you discover miso, it won’t be a stranger on the shelf.
Because of its intense flavor it needs to be balanced with other ingredients. Add it to a vinaigrette and serve with asparagus, artichokes, or a tossed garden salad. Or make miso soup by stirring a spoonful or two of the paste into vegetable broth and adding udon noodles.
The most common type of miso found in American markets is a thick paste that looks like crunchy peanut butter and comes in a range of colors, from beige to very dark brown. This salty, richly flavored condiment perks up the flavor of soups and marinades.
Because it is so thick, miso must always be blended with a bit of liquid before being added to a dish. Miso is available in most supermarkets and in Asian groceries. Any shade of light-colored miso will work fine.
Tommy Klauber, owner-chef of Pattigeorge Restaurant on Florida’s Longboat Key, serves this dish to rave reviews. Because he always has lobster on hand (doesn’t everybody?), he uses lobster consommé as his poaching liquid. We’ll use mirin and sake. You will need to marinate the fish for at least 2 hours or even overnight before broiling it. Have the vegetable garnish ready before you begin to cook the fish.