The traditional Japanese seasoning of miso is featured this week, with a focus on miso breweries, the various types of miso and how miso is used in different ways in a variety of dishes in Nagano.
Miso is one of the essential seasonings for the Japanese. It is believed that miso originally came from China during the 7th century. Since then, various flavours have been invented to adapt to the Japanese palate and cuisine. Miso is also used in other traditional local dishes such as goheimochi.
To find out more about miso, we visit Nagano City in Nagano Prefecture. It is the top producer and consumer of miso in Japan. There are several miso breweries here and our first stop is Yoshinoya, which produces sake and miso. It also sells a variety of products, such as sake, amazake and miso. Visitors are allowed the sample their sake and miso soup. The owner recommends we try Junmai Daiginjo sake, which is made with Gohyakumangoku rice from Niigata Prefecture.
We get to try some soup made from yellow label miso, which was aged for two years at a low temperature. We learn that the miso soup is made by just mixing miso with hot water; no soup stock is added. Yoshinoya was established in the early Edo period as a sake brewery. In the Meiji era, the owners started using rice malt produced in the sake-making process and began to produce miso at the same time. The most popular one is Gokaicho miso, made with 30 per cent more rice malt. This miso is great for hotpots and grilled rice balls. In Nagano, Shinshu miso is quite well-known. Its main ingredients are soybeans, rice malt and salt. Soybeans and rice malt are mixed using a 1:1 ratio, producing a mild miso.
We next visit the Kadomae Miso Brewery Suyakame. We find out that the best time to make miso is during the cold season. The brewery, which opened in 1902, prepares miso during this season using a process called kanjikomi. Its most popular miso is called Kogane and it is made with soybeans harvested in the Tohoku region. This miso is a bit salty and is ideal for simmered dishes and miso soup. We take a tour of the brewery and see its speciality barley miso. The soybeans, rice malt and salt used for their miso are all produced in Japan. For rice malt, the brewery only uses rice produced in Nagano Prefecture.
We are keen to see what the brewery’s employees are eating for lunch. We are invited to their breakroom, where we meet staff from the miso and pickled product departments. The company provides miso soup to the employees every day, but the ingredients change daily. For example, on this particular day, nameko mushroom and Japanese mustard spinach miso soup is prepared for them. Other items include vegetables pickled in sake lees, as well as those pickled in miso.
Some staff also show us their lunchboxes. Ms Ozawa has spinach mixed with walnut miso, which she made herself. There is also pork marinated in sake lees and pork loin seasoned with miso. A sausage is rolled with the latter and grilled. Ms Kitasawa shows us one of Suyakame’s products, Kizami miso. It refers to chopped radish, burdock roots and cucumbers pickled in miso. She too is having sausages rolled with pork pickled in miso for lunch. Another employee, Ms Furuhata, has miso gyoza dumplings in her lunch box.
After this, we continue exploring Nagano City. We come across a group of people pounding rice. They are from Nishinomoncho’s neighbourhood association and are giving out rice cakes, as part of an annual event. We try the rice cake with soy sauce and seaweed. There are also rice cakes with grated radish and Kinako rice cakes.
One of the folks helping out at the event is Mrs Sachiko Watanabe, a professional photographer who is a great cook. We request to see her dinner and she gladly invites us to her home, where she lives with her husband and their two daughters. She shows us how she prepares konetsuke with sweet miso sauce. The sauce is also used to make mackerel simmered in miso. She first makes sweet miso by using regular miso and adding sugar and unrefined sake to it.
For the konetsuke, leftover rice, locally produced flour from Nagano and water are mixed together. Miso is put inside and it is then deep-fried for five minutes. The Watanabe family has different varieties of miso soup for breakfast and dinner every day. On this day, root vegetable miso soup is prepared.
Our next food investigation takes place in Ashikaga in Tochigi Prefecture. The city is a major producer of textiles and is popular among women from the Tohoku region. We go to a coming-of-age ceremony for 180 “new adults” at Sakanishi Junior High. Many girls we speak to are attending a school reunion later, so they are unable to show us their dinner. We then meet Akemi Yoshida, who is half-Japanese and half-Filipino. She is at the ceremony with her sister, Arisa, and her brother-in-law. She goes to a training school for those working in the wedding industry. After checking with her mother, she allows us to visit her house the next day to see their celebratory meal.
The following day, we go to Ms Akemi’s home in the evening. We meet her mum, Helen, who is from Batangas in the Philippines. She and her daughters start cooking dinner. One of the dishes is asado, a typical celebratory pork dish in the Philippines. Another item is potato salad, which is Akemi’s favourite dish. Helen tells us that her husband, Akira, passed away from cancer at the age of 60 in 2007. So Helen raised her daughters singlehandedly while working at a factory.
1) Nagano City is the top producer and consumer of miso in Japan
2) Visit a miso brewery to learn about the various types of miso and how they are produced