This soup echoes the days spent in training at Toshoji temple in Japan, where meals are often served on long, low, narrow tables with seven to fourteen monks and guests kneeling on either side, one big soup pot in the middle and a rice cooker perched on the tatami mat floor. The navigation skill it took to pass the soup bowls up the table to the pot and back down again was impressive – let alone that every bowl looked the same. The only way of knowing was to keep a watchful eye on whose palms were together in gassho as their bowl arrived at the soup pot, or if it was your bowl, keep your hands in gassho if you didn’t want to lose it on its way back.
There are myriad versions of miso soup, depending on the local style, season, and what is available. There are a few I like to make regularly and this is one of them. It’s similar to the soups served both at Toshoji and Kirigayji (where many Zen River residents have been).
Clear broths or miso soup were – and presumably still are – served for lunch and supper, alongside steamed white rice, small portions of braised vegetables and a little salad marinated in sweet vinegar – plus, if one was lucky, a crispy tempura dish on the side.
Food donations from the temple’s members were usually seasonal – meaning at times there wasn’t much to cook with besides common vegetables. On those occasions, cabbages and onions took the starring role and could meekly shine. Often highly under-rated – espcially as we have such interesting produce shipped in from distant continents in our supermarkets- they both tasted surprisingly sweet and delicate against the bold backdrop of red miso. A marvellous winter soup that warms the cockles of your soul.
A little sea salt brings out the flavours without having to use too much miso, but if you like it stronger, feel free to add more miso a spoonful at a time.
If you want a more authentic taste, and don’t purport to being a vegetarian, try adding a dash of bonito (fish) powder to the initial stock.
60 g (4 tablespoons) red (aka) miso, or to taste
250 ml (1 cup) cold water
200 g (2 cups) common green cabbage
1 medium onion
15 g (1 tablespoon) fresh ginger
A few stems of chives
7 x 7 cm (3 x 3”) piece of konbu (kelp)
1-2 dried shitake mushrooms (10 g)
1 tablespoon mirin (or ½ teaspoon rice vinegar and ½ teaspoon sugar)
1 tablespoon sake (or dry sherry, or white wine)
1¼ litres (5 cups) water
Dash of sea salt
- Thinly slice the cabbage in short lengths.
- Peel and thinly slice the onion.
- Peel, and grate or mince the ginger.
- Slowly bring the water to a boil on a low flame in a pot with the kombu, dried shitake mushrooms, ginger, mirin, sake and sea salt. Scoop out the kombu and set aside. Cooking the kombu and shitake slowly will enhance their flavour.
- Continue to simmer for 15–20 minutes, or until the shitake are tender.
- Scoop out the shitake from the pot. Cool off under cold water then small-dice, cutting away any hard stems. Return them to the pot.
- Cut the kombu into small squares and set aside for now.
- Stir in the onions and cabbage, bring to a gentle boil, turn down the flame, cover and simmer until both the onions and cabbage are tender and soft, about 15 minutes.
- Put the miso into a fine mesh sieve, lower the sieve into the soup and rub it through the holes using a wooden spoon until it has dissolved. Any residue from the miso caught in the sieve can be added too. Check the seasoning. If desired, rub in an extra spoonful of two of miso.
- To keep the healthy enzymes and the flavour of miso, don’t let it boil. (Boiling will tarnish the flavour of miso.)
- Stir in the kombu squares. Serve immediately.