Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Perhaps if I hadn’t stumbled into Tökyö, Japan a little after 4 p.m., bleary-eyed and dazed from a 13-hour journey from Kingston, Jamaica, I would have never discovered one of the country’s delightful little powerhouses of a meal.
Yes, I had eaten my way across the Pacific Ocean (you know things are going to be special when you are given hot towels midair to clean up before a meal). But still when I landed at Narita International, I needed two things: a warm beverage and a bed to fall into.
I found the bed first, a wide, flat number looking something like a double and single pushed together, just high enough from the floor not to hurt yourself should you fall off. Perfect.
The warm beverage I found last, literally, at the end of my meal. As I finished my meal in the Daiichi Hotel dining room, I spotted the cauldron first and thought, oh great! Soup. I love soups. I charged over, filled her up, settled and was pleasantly surprised.
Miso soup, a thin, mild flavored broth, is very popular as a breakfast item, and its ingredients I’m told are staples of Japanese kitchens. Miso itself is a paste made from fermented soy beans, rice koji (cooked rice mixed with a mold to speed up the fermentation), salt, rice and barley.
It varies from a whitish color to dark brown, depending on how long it has been aged. A cook can add a variety of ingredients, and most often it will include cubed tofu (a firm, mild soybean product) and seaweed.
Delicate, almost like tea. But it also has a nuanced richness, savory from the miso paste and the traditional Japanese dashi, a complex flavored broth. And yes, you may drink straight from the bowl.
Miso soup will vary as you work your way across Japan. In Tökyö, miso soup tends to be a darker variety. Here in historic Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, culinary tradition dictates that miso is of the whitish variety.
If done the traditional way, miso paste is made in a two-ton handmade cedar barrel with the cooked ingredients left to ferment and cure under one ton of rocks, which folklore says not even hurricanes can shift.
Today, though, you don’t need to have access to a ton of rocks to enjoy miso soup. It’s available as a freeze-dried product or in a packet in powdered form. Add-ons such as seaweed, freeze-dried tofu squares and other ingredients are also included in these convenient formats. And in either case, just add hot water.
Although miso is central to Japanese life and is served as a daily item no matter the meal, its history is that of Chinese, brought to Japan by Buddhist monks.
Since miso is made from rice, it was originally considered a luxury item and only consumed by royalty, but later as people learned about its energy-giving and health benefits, it was used by the wider society. It is said that the samurai – traditional Japanese warriors – even adopted it as a staple part of their diet. Today, miso is a simple way to get a nutritious, economically priced and easy ‘go-to meal’ or comfort food.
And for one tired traveler, it was a warm, welcoming introduction to a country that never ceases to surprise and delight.
Glenda Anderson is a journalist with The Gleaner newspaper in Kingston, Jamaica. She traveled to Japan as a participant in the APIC Japan Journalism Fellowship, a program run by the Association for Promotion of International Cooperation. APIC is a private foundation whose mission is to create stronger ties between Japan and the nations of the Caribbean and Pacific Islands.