Food & Drink The cultured condiment

Meatless in Steer City - Miso provides protein and can protect against breast cancer

If you've ever eaten at a Japanese restaurant, you know the pleasure of a steaming hot bowl of miso soup, a deceptively simple, salty broth with tofu, wakame, and, sometimes green onion. When you stir the soup, a light brown cloud swirls up and then slowly filters down through the broth to settle again at the bottom -that's miso.

Miso's origins date back to 4th-century China, at the advent of hisio, a paste of soybeans, wheat, alcohol, and salt that was used as a seasoning and preservative. Three hundred years later, Japanese Buddhist monks created miso. Similar to its forebear, miso paste is made by combining cooked soybeans and grain - such as rice or barley - with salt and Aspergillus Orzae, a benign mold culture, and then fermenting the mixture in cedar vats for one to three years. Similar to many wines and cheeses, the miso that has fermented the longest is considered the finest and is therefore the most expensive.

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For this dish, firm tofu was marinated and braised in a sauce made from miso.

At first, the rich, salty paste was a luxury item used only by aristocrats and samurai - the latter believed the salt fortified them for battle. Later, as the cultivation of rice spread, miso became a mainstay of the Japanese diet.

The Japanese drink miso as a broth for breakfast and then use it as a condiment in different foods throughout the day. Unlike ketchup, miso has impressive nutritional value: two tablespoons of the paste has 4 grams of protein, 23 milligrams of calcium, and 1.25 milligrams of zinc. Many believe that miso promotes wound healing and draws impurities out of the body and, according to the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, studies have shown that it can protect against breast cancer.

Tofu Marinade

> 1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and finely diced
> 1/2 c Mirin
> 1/4 c Tamari
> 1/4 c white miso paste
> 1/8 c rice wine vinegar
> 1 T chopped garlic
> 1 t chile paste

In a shallow container, whisk together all the ingredients. I recommend marinating a pound of tofu for at least three hours. Afterwards, strain and reserve the marinade and braise or fry using the smallest amount of oil, the tofu. Heat the strained marinade in a separate pan and use it as a sauce with the tofu, over rice or noodles. Stir-fried vegetables are the perfect accompaniment.

Although you can buy packets of dry miso in just about any well-stocked grocery, the paste has a more complex, intense flavor, ranging from mellow and sweet to bright and salty. In San Antonio, you can find tubs of white, red, barley, and tofu miso at Whole Foods. Although miso makes a lovely broth, it also can be mixed into marinades, or used with rice vinegar, olive oil, ginger, and garlic to make a salad dressing. Like wine, each batch of miso has its own flavor and there are many varieties, but here are some generalities:

White miso is made from white rice. It is only fermented for a few weeks and is low in soy and sodium, but high in carbohydrates, all of which gives the paste a smooth texture and a sweet, mellow flavor.

Red miso may contain rice or barley. It has the highest protein content of all misos and, fermented for up to three years, a rich, meaty flavor and chunky consistency.

Brown barley miso is made with barley, soy, and a barley mold. It usually ferments for at least three years, which makes it the most salty and intensely yeasty of the misos.

Chocolate-brown Hatcho miso is made only with soy and a special mold, Aspergillus Hatcho. Although it has a long fermentation, three years or more, it is low in salt and carbohydrates, which may contribute to its chunky consistency and smooth, but intense flavor.

By Susan Pagani

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