I did it, at long last. Made an authentic miso soup. It may be the best thing I’ve ever eaten. My recipe needs tweaking a bit, though I know what elements I want to tweak. I’m no photographer, but I’m going to post the photos I took of the soup-in-progress.
This recipe makes about five cups, which is about four modest bowls of soup. Double it if you like, but be warned—miso soup needs to be made and consumed fresh. Apparently it doesn’t store every well, even overnight, so only make as much as you’ll eat. The recipe is easily doubled or halved.
Technically, miso soup is miso paste and some kind of liquid, so you can put it in water and add veggies or meat and it’s still miso soup. But almost without exception, true miso soup begins with a broth called dashi. It’s made with seaweed and some sort of dried fish, unless you’re a vegan and then you use dried shiitake mushrooms. Some use both fish and mushrooms. So the first task is to make the dashi. The dashi can be made in bulk and supposedly keeps very well for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator. So it’s the miso component that makes the soup an eat-it-all-now proposition. Many people therefore make up a larger batch of the dashi, then make much smaller portions of the soup itself. Many Japanese people have miso soup for breakfast, so they’ll just use as much dashi as they need for a small breakfast bowl and store the rest.
First is the water. Use filtered if possible; soup is only as good as the water its made from. Four to five cups. I used four and three-quarters, which during the cooking process reduced to about 4.5 cups.
Second is the kombu. Thick seaweed with a scent that is more musty than it is fishy, with a light coating of white Something on it. Dried sea salt? Mold? Who knows. Most directions say to wipe off the white stuff gently; one said Don’t do that, it’s essential to the soup! So as the white stuff wasn’t too thick, I left it.
How much? Answers range from “one large strip” to “two to four sheets, broken up.” So terribly helpful. Those master miso soup makers who allowed themselves to be pinned down said about 10 grams, which is about 1/3 of an ounce, which is about a four-inch (or 10 centimeter) square.
Soak it overnight. Soak it for twenty minutes. Don’t soak it. Bring to a boil slowly. Bring to a boil quickly. Boil for ten minutes. For God’s sake never, never boil it! Such are the varied instructions.
I soaked mine overnight, and tasted it this morning. I can’t see that the water tasted much different, so I’ll skip this step in the future. Start it in cold water (if I’d had a dried shiitaki, I’d have tossed it in too), and bring it the boil slowly over medium-low heat. When it just begins to boil, take it off heat. Most recipes say to remove the kombu at this point. The reason you don’t boil it is that it gets slimy. Well, even un-boiled, it’s quite slippery now, which is what yesterday’s poem was taking about. Use tongs with a good gripper on them.
Next, dump in the katsuobushi—that is, the bonito flakes. Bonito is a fish of the mackerel family, though skipjack tuna is used interchangeably. The fish is smoked and dried until it becomes like wood, whereupon it is shaved into these thin, curly flakes that look like pencil shavings. How much bonito? It’s up to you. One cup is a very good starting point, though some recipes double it, and one of the Japanese Iron Chef contestants threw in handful after handful.
Again, the recipes diverge wildly here. Boil it. Don’t boil it. Steep just until the flakes fall to the bottom of the pan, then remove. Steep for two minutes. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Thirty minutes in a roaring boil. I boiled the bonito for one minute, steeped it for two, then started tasting frequently, and decided that at ten minutes, it had gotten as smoky and fishy as I liked: pleasantly assertive, able to stand up against the strong flavors of miso, without being at all overwhelming. Under five minutes and I thought it was still a bit too bland.
Strain carefully. Voilá dashi!
Let’s talk about miso. There are lots of different kinds, but most recipes talk about white or light (shiru) miso, and red or dark (aka) miso. Some prefer the dark barley miso. Once you have tried different misos and know what you like, you can do what you like; apparently the majority seem to favor light only, though a significant minority like either dark or a mixture of dark and light.
Assemble your other ingredients. Tofu, wakame, and some scallions or leeks are a classic combination (and the one I chose to start with), but you can add just about anything your heart desires. Substitute shrimp or chicken for the tofu. Use any vegetables that appeal to you. Thin slices, small juliennes, modest cubes.
There were two camps on tofu style and amount. Most said 7 or 8 ounces, though some called for double that. Half said silken (very soft) tofu, the rest said very firm, and some of those said to press the tofu to squeeze out excess water. I went with the silken tofu. I couldn’t even get it out of the container properly, and certainly couldn’t cube it without it falling apart absurdly. It was the consistency of soft flan. Next time I’m going with very firm, pressing it beforehand.
Wakame is another kind of dried seaweed. Much less aggressive, quite pleasant. Some recipes said to use half an ounce, others a few teaspoons. I found 1/8 ounce (about half a gram) to be just about right.
I also used three fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced thinly. I should have used four.
And I’ve only cooked with leeks one other time in my life, and then I sauteed them. Here’s how much I used:
So: Bring your dashi to a boil. Transfer one ladle of the dashi to a small bowl. Toss in anything that needs cooking longer, like leeks (or thinly sliced carrots, or julienned daikon radish). After a few minutes, toss in the wakame, crushing it in your hand a bit as you do. Add the mushrooms and anything that takes less time to cook. When everything’s done, remove from heat. If you’re using firm tofu, add it now. If you’re using soft tofu, put it in the individual bowls, otherwise it will fall apart as you dish it up.
Remember that little bowl with the ladle of hot dashi? That’s where you put your miso. I used a mixture of two parts dark miso to one part light, a scant half cup of it altogether. Whisk it together, then add it the soup and stir. (Still off the heat. Never never never boil miso. It destroys the nutrients immediately and it angers the miso gods.) It’s probably best to only pour half of your miso slurry into the soup until you taste it. Keep adding more until the soup tastes right. I found I needed the entire amount, but I could tell I wouldn’t like it to be stronger.
Did it taste right? Did it ever. This photo simply doesn’t do it justice:
What I did wrong:
- I bought only enough bonito for one batch. I have enough kombu and wakame for about ten.
- I didn’t cook the leeks long enough in the dashi. They needed to be softer.
- I didn’t crumble the wakame when I put it in, which means that the pieces in the soup are just a bit too big. Some recipes say to rehydrate it in cold water, then chop it before adding it to the soup, but the same thing is accomplished more simply just by crushing the pieces. I didn’t realize how much larger the rehydrated pieces would become.
- I didn’t use enough shiitake mushrooms.
- I used soft tofu instead of firm.
- I fretted too much.
That last note is important. This sounds like an overwhelmingly fussy soup, when it would really be quite simple if only I was secure in what I was supposed to be doing. But that’s the way I am: scrupulous and over-careful at the beginning, slapdash at the end. Let me see if I can give you the whole process in shorthand.
- Make dashi. Next time I’ll use 10 cups water, 20 grams kombu, 2 generous cups bonito. Put kombu in cold water, heat slowly, remove just before boiling point. Toss in bonito, boil for 1 minute, let steep for 10 minutes, strain. May be made in advance and stored up to 2 weeks before next step.
- Heat to boiling as much dashi as needed for your meal—one cup, a whole quart, it’s up to you. Toss in your veggies, etc., in the order in which they need to cook properly. If you’re using wakame, use about 1 gram per cup, lightly crushed as you add it to the soup.
- Remove from heat. Add your miso—I’d say 1 to 2 tablespoons per cup of soup—by taking some of the soup liquid and making a slurry with the miso, then gently adding it back to the soup. Taste and make any final adjustments. Serve.
The health benefits of this soup are profound, apparently. But the taste is even more amazing: complex, seductive, comforting, wondrous. Umami. It means “yummy” or “delicious” in Japanese, but is now recognized as the fifth taste. Veal stock is umami. Dashi is umami. You owe it to yourself to make some. It will definitely be a staple in my home for the rest of my life.
I read somewhere that Japanese households commonly eat miso soup with rice and pickles. Pickles? Like, kosher dills? Doesn’t strike me as a natural accompaniment, but I’m up for anything.