This soup echoes the distant days spent in training at Toshoji temple in Japan, where meals are traditionally served on long, low, narrow tables with 7 to 14 monks /guests kneeling 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 the fact that every bowl was identical. 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 keep your hands in gassho if you didn’t want to lose your bowl on its way back.
There are myriad versions of miso soup, depending on the season and what is available. I have a few that I like to make regularly – this one is a homey variation, similar to those that were often served at Toshoji (where many Zen River residents have been). Clear broths or miso soup were – and presumably still are – served at both lunch and supper, alongside steamed white rice, small portions of braised vegetables and little salads 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 in our consumer society – where more interesting produce is shipped in from distant continents – 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
- Whisk the red miso and cold water into a smooth paste.
- Thinly slice the cabbage in short lengths.
- Peel and thinly slice the onion.
- Peel, and grate or mince the ginger.
- Bring the water to a boil in a pot with the konbu, dried shitake mushrooms, ginger, mirin, sake and sea salt.
- Simmer for 15–20 minutes, or until the shitake are tender, then scoop out with the konbu. Cover and continue to simmer on low flame while preparing the next step.
- Small-dice the shitake, cutting away any hard stems. Return to the pot.
- Cut the konbu 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.
- Stir in the miso paste and check the seasoning. If desired, thin an extra spoonful of miso with a little of the soup and then stir it back into the pot.
- To keep the healthy enzymes and the flavour of miso, don’t let it cook. (Boiling will tarnish the flavour of miso.)
- Stir in the konbu squares.
- Serve immediately.