Miso, an ancient staple in the Japanese diet, has gained popularity in the West in recent years as a remarkable health-giving food. In times past, only the wealthy had access to the finest organic miso. Luckily for us today, this highly nutritious paste made from fermented rice, barley, chickpeas, or soybeans is readily available from local sources.
Unpasteurized miso, sometimes referred to as the “wine of the Orient,” requires much skill and patience to brew properly and is as varied in flavour as fine wine. I so love the malty, salty, savoury flavour of miso that it has become part of my daily diet. Heck, it’s even replaced coffee as my preferred morning beverage.
Furthermore, unpasteurized miso has long been hailed as a major contributor to the longevity of the Japanese people, possibly due to its high level of cancer-fighting isoflavones and probiotic bacteria. According to The Miso Book by John and Jan Belleme: “Proponents of the macrobiotic diet have long advocated the importance of the probiotic effects of unpasteurized miso. George W. Yu, M.D., a professor at George Washington University Medical Center, has presented to the National Cancer Institute several case histories of terminal cancer patients who have failed conventional treatment, but have found success using the macrobiotic diet as the main treatment. Dr.Yu believes it may be the probiotic influence of the microorganisms in foods such as miso that is responsible for their anti-cancer effects.”
Lidia Kuleshnyk is a local Health and Lifestyle Consultant who specializes in teaching the fundamentals of macrobiotics for prevention and healing of disease. One of her many cooking classes, entitled “Dinner of the Gods,” includes Miso Soup on the menu because Lidia believes that miso is a fundamental power food of macrobiotic cooking. She also includes miso on the menu in her “Fat Dissolving Foods” cooking class. (See Resource list at end.)
Miso is also good at detoxifying heavy metals and radiation from the body. According to a blog entitled “Foods to Detoxify Radiation Poisoning,” posted on the Canadian website www.helladelicious.com:
“Miso’s outstanding medicinal qualities have been confirmed by scientific research. Dr. Shinchiro Akizuki, director of Saint Francis Hospital in Nagasaki, devoted his career to researching the use of foods, such as miso, as preventive medicine. Although Dr. Akizuki spent years treating atomic-bomb victims just a few miles from ground zero, neither he nor his associates suffered from the usual effects of radiation. Dr. Akizuki hypothesized that he and his staff were protected from the deadly radiation because they drank miso soup every day.
In 1972, Akizuki’s theory was confirmed when researchers discovered that miso contains dipicolinic acid, an alkaloid that chelates heavy metals such as radioactive strontium, and discharges them from the body. In 1981, scientists at Japan’s Cancer Research Center found that those who regularly ate miso soup suffered significantly less than the norm from some forms of cancer and heart disease. More recently, workers at Tohoku University in Hokkaido, Japan, isolated substances in miso that cancel out the effects of some carcinogens.”
In another book by John and Jan Belleme entitled Culinary Treasures of Japan: The Art of Making and Using Traditional Japanese Foods, the authors comment:
“The Japanese are currently facing impossible times with the earthquake, tsunami, and now their nuclear plants leaking radioactive materials. Of all the nations to have this happen to them, perhaps the Japanese will have the best chance of being able to deal with the radiation, health-wise. There are a few foods that help human bodies deal with radiation which are commonly eaten in Japan – one of these is seaweed and the other is miso soup. (Other foods include spirulina, algaes, green and black tea, reishi mushroom, burdock root, ginseng, ginkgo, and beneficial probiotics.).”
In regards to its nutrient profile, miso is a great source of vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids, and supplies the body with protein, fibre, and healthy carbohydrates. Who knew that all those little bowls of delight called miso, that I’ve enjoyed over the years, were more than simply a precursor to the main course of sushi? Who knew that miso itself could be the main course?
There are many brands of miso on the market, some made with organic soybeans and others with conventionally grown soybeans. Currently, up to 94% of North American soybean crops are genetically modified. Consumers who wish to avoid GMOs should look for certified organic soybean products. And for people allergic to soy, some misos are now soy-free.
I’ve discovered quite a variety of miso products in the refrigerated section at my local health food store, and my favourite brand is Tradition Organic Miso, a local artisanal producer. The mission of the company’s founders, Jerry Lewycky and Suzanne Cardinal, was “to bring the ancient craft of producing fine miso to Canada.” Anyone who has tried their product line will agree that the quality is superb. Unpasteurized, certified organic, and containing no preservatives, Tradition Miso is made the old fashioned way, aged up to four years.
Whether you incorporate miso into any of the recipes offered below – or you want to simply add a teaspoon or two to a mug of hot water for a pick-me-up any time of the day, you’re in for a real treat.
MISO SOUP (TRADITIONAL)
Preparation of soup stock:
- 8 cups water
- 8 inches kombu
- 2 cups bonito flakes
Bring the water to a boil. Add kombu and boil again. Add bonito flakes and keep boiling for a few minutes. Remove from heat and strain. This strained liquid is used for soup stock.
Preparation of miso soup:
- 4 cups soup stock
- 4 Tbsp brown rice or barley miso
- 1 stalk green onion
- Tofu and wakame as desired
Soak dry wakame in water for 30 minutes, rinse and cut into narrow strips. Cut tofu in small cubes. Chop green onions. Heat soup stock. Add miso, and just before boiling remove pan from heat. Garnish soup with green onions, wakame, and tofu. Serve warm.
TOFU MISO SOUP
- 4 cups water or stock
- 1 onion, minced
- Any combination of vegetables, thinly sliced
- (carrots, daikon, leafy greens, chard, water cress, turnip, seaweed, cauliflower, celery, cabbage, etc.)
- ⅓ lb tofu, small cubes (optional)
- Several shiitake or other mushrooms, thinly sliced
- 2 tsp olive oil
- 4 to 5 Tbsp brown rice or barley miso
- 1 Tbsp roasted sesame oil
- Green onions, sliced for garnish
Sauté onions and mushrooms in oil, then add vegetables, starting with the firmest, until almost cooked. Add to boiling water or stock. Add tofu and return to boil. Make a thin paste of miso with a small amount of stock, and add it to the pot. Turn off heat. Let sit several minutes. Add sesame oil, garnish, and serve.