Miso is Japanese fermented soybean paste. It looks like peanut butter and smells bad. But don’t let this put you off. It adds an intense and savoury depth and complexity to many dishes.
It is high in ‘umami’ – the fifth (and best) basic taste, after sweetness, saltiness, bitterness and sourness. Other umami-rich foods are Parmesan, soy sauce, fish sauce, mushrooms, tomatoes and some meats. They are all high in tasty glutamates (as in monosodium glutamate, which occurs naturally in seaweed and was isolated and developed as a food additive back in 1907).
It’s good for you too, as it’s very tasty, yet low in calories, and also full of protein, beneficial bacteria and B vitamins.
Traditionally rural Japanese families would make their own miso each year after the grain harvest. It is made by injecting ground, cooked soybeans with a special mould cultivated in rice, barley or soybeans. It is then mixed with water and salt and allowed to ferment for anything between several weeks and several years. The longer the better. I suggest you buy yours from a shop. Look in the refrigerated section of a large supermarket, healthfood store or Asian food shop. It should contain just soybeans, water, salt and a grain, ie no additives.
There are all sorts of misos, ranging in colours, textures and flavours, with different uses. If you have some left in the packet, keep it in the fridge (for up to a year) so you can try using a little to enhance the flavour of soups, sauces, vinaigrettes and dips. It’s apparently excellent in tomato sauce.