When I was an exchange student in Japan we ate miso soup with dinner almost every night. While I resisted a great deal of seafood while in Japan, it was too much strain on my family to refuse to eat dashi, the fish broth that serves as a base for so many Japanese dishes. Miso soup was my “gateway food” to eating fish.
Here is my host family at the dinner table in May 2008 when my husband and I were visiting. All the red and black bowls are miso soup. My host mom likes to put in thinly-sliced onion and potato.
My grocery shopping experience in Japan was limited because I lived with a wonderful host family. In the States I find that it’s expected for kids to help mom (or dad) by setting the table or doing the dishes, or even with some cooking. In Japan that is not the case. Mom is queen of the kitchen, and woe be to s/he who enters her demesne uninvited, or anyone who offers assistance thereby implying that she is not capable of doing something herself. Though I spent six months consuming delicious home-cooked Japanese food, I didn’t learn to cook any of it myself.
Here is my host mom in the center with my two host sisters — it was Mother’s Day! I lived with them in the spring and summer of 2001. I’ve been back to visit three times since then, and all four of them came to our 2006 wedding. Love them!
When my husband came down with a nasty cold a few weeks ago I wanted to make him some soothing soup. Classic chicken noodle wasn’t in the cards, but miso soup sounded like a perfect match for all the tea I had him drinking. Too bad I had never made it. The actual soup recipe is simple (dashi, miso paste, other stuff), so the trick was finding all the ingredients.
Luckily, my Google-fu is strong and I found excellent instructions for making your own dashi in this article on Serious Eats, and I thought it turned out quite well. The best part about the article is, I think, the photos — not of the cooking, but of the products. Even though I can read some of the packaging, when I went to Mitsuwa, the fabulous Japanese market in town, the photos helped guide me to the type of bonito I needed without having to ask. I felt just like I was in Japan while at the market; there was only one other white person, I had a foreigner bubble, and the stock girl refused to talk to me, just gestured and ran away. Ahh, memories. Natsukashi!
Anyway, I recommend either instant dashi (here is one example), or following the Serious Eats instructions. The recipe makes a large batch, but dashi can be stored in the refrigerator for a month. The ingredients probably cost $10-15, but I should get a minimum of four batches of dashi before running out of any single ingredient.
Dashi is your base. Once you have that, you’re almost set.
Next up is miso. Very few people make miso, which is fermented mashed soybeans. In fact, it was one of our cooking projects in my home ec class in Japan — boil soybeans, mash them, then put them in a bag in a cupboard for a few months, shaking occasionally — but I came home before it was done fermenting. You can buy a tub of miso paste in the refrigerated section of most grocery stores (obviously an Asian market is a good choice if possible) which will last for ages. I got mine at Whole Foods.
Now we’ve got dashi and miso paste, so what’s left is add-ins. You can put in all sorts of things: tofu, noodles, spinach, onions, seaweed, potato slices, etc. I added tofu, scallions and wakame seaweed for color and flavor. To make it a meal, I threw in some soba (thin buckwheat noodles).
Dashi should not be boiled, so I cooked the soba separately and added it to the soup before serving. This soba says to add the noodles to boiling water and cook for 4 minutes, which I found to be about a minute too long.
The miso paste gets whisked in a saucepan with the dashi then heated through without boiling. I added cubed tofu (I used firm tofu that was in my fridge, but I would recommend a softer style), sliced scallions, a pinch of wakame, and the noodles. Simple, but delicious.
If you make the dashi ahead of time or use the instant type, it only takes 5-10 minutes. You can slice the onions and tofu while the water boils for the soba, toss the noodles in the hot broth, and serve while still steaming. In the time it takes to heat up a can of Campbell’s on the stove, you can have this instead.
Miso soup is usually just eaten with chopsticks to grab the solids, then sipped straight from the bowl.
Don’t forget to slurp your noodles!
Miso Soup with Soba
Serves 1 as a main, 2 as a side
2 ounces dry soba noodles
1 cup dashi
1-2 teaspoons miso paste (start with 1 teaspoon and add more if you’d like)
1/4 cup cubed tofu (soft preferred)
1 tablespoon scallion, sliced into rings
1 teaspoon dried wakame
1.) Boil water in a medium sauce pan; add soba noodles for 3-4 minutes (or follow directions on package). Drain.
2.) Whisk together dashi and miso paste in a small pan. Add tofu, scallions, and wakame. Place over low heat. Do not boil.
3.) Place soba in a bowl. Top with steaming soup. Serve immediately.