Miso is an amazing thing. It’s both versatile and healthy, being high in protein and rich in vitamins and minerals.
We have spent quite some time in Japan over the years – at Kirigayaji, the family temple of Hojosan, our dharma great-uncle where we lived for a while, at friends temples, and in training temples – and each time, each place, miso soup has its own unique character. The same; but always different.
At Kirigayaji, it was strong and dark, filled with chunks of simmered aubergine; in the training temples, it was regularly prepared with thinly sliced onion and cabbage using scant, delicate amounts of white miso; in the restaurants where we were invited too, it was often served with small bite-sized skinny mushrooms in a dark-red, robust-tasting miso soup.
The usual method is to mix the miso into a smooth paste with some water, but I have witnessed an old seasoned monk slap a dollop of miso into a fine mesh sieve, lower it into the hot bouillon and press it against the walls of the sieve with a wooden spoon until it dissolved and disappeared into the soup. Very cool trick which I’m prone to do myself when I’m in a rush, or if the soup needs a bit more miso at the last minute!
Once you get the hang of it, miso soup can be relatively easy to put together, and this recipe, made with white miso and pumpkin, is very gentle. The sweet, subtle taste of pumpkin gives the strong, salty kick of miso a lovely soft landing on your palette. I love it.
100 g (6 tablespoons) white (shiro) miso, or to taste
250 ml (1 cup) cold water
250 g (2 cups) sugar or kabocha pumpkin
100 g (½ cup) soft/silken tofu, or 50 g (½ cup) of freeze-dried tofu
1 stem green onion
7 x 7 cm (3 x 3”) piece of konbu (dried flat seaweed)
3–4 dried shitake mushrooms (20 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
- Whisk the miso and cold water into a smooth paste.
- Peel, deseed and small-dice the pumpkin.
- Handling with great care, drain and small-dice the silken tofu. If using freeze-dried tofu, cover with warm water and press to let the water in. Let it soak for 10-15 minutes or until it becomes soft. Press out any excess water and dice.
- Clean and cut the green onion into wafer thin slices.
- Bring the water to a boil in a pot with the konbu, dried shitake mushrooms, mirin and sake.
- Simmer for 15–20 minutes, then scoop out the shitake and konbu. Cover and continue to simmer on low flame while preparing the next step.
- Cut the konbu into small squares. Small-dice the shitake – cutting away any hard stems – and return both to the pot.
- Put in the pumpkin and simmer for about 5 minutes, or until the pumpkin is tender.
- Add the tofu, being careful not to break it.
- Stir in the miso 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 preserve the healthy enzymes and the flavour of miso, don’t let it cook. (Boiling will tarnish the flavour of miso.)
- Garnish with the green onion and serve immediately.