I’ve been home from Tokyo for more than a month now, and I miss the food quite a bit. Usually when this happens, I jump into the kitchen and cook until my cravings have been satisfied. This time, though, I’m facing a larger learning curve.
It’s not that Japanese ingredients or culinary techniques are inaccessible. It’s more that a lot of my cooking is built upon muscle memory. You can start a lot of stews and pasta dishes by heating oil in a sauté pan and adding chopped onions, celery, and carrots. You can finish a lot of lentil dishes by frying mustard seeds, curry leaves, and dried chiles and pouring them into the pot.
In the case of Japanese cooking, these tricks don’t translate. Before you can start to cook, you may need to soak sea vegetables, grate various roots, or track down unfamiliar seasonings. Meanwhile, the flavors are more subtle, so it’s harder to tell if you’re on the right track. In addition, reading Japanese recipes makes me feel as though I’m reading a manual for a new gadget. I think I get it, but then I have to keep rereading the instructions to make sure I’m not confusing my kombu with my wakame. Since I wasn’t feeling ready to put together an entire Japanese home-cooked meal with an array of condiments and side dishes, I decided to first learn the fundamentals. So I made an ordinary miso soup.
In Japan, miso soup is as ordinary as it gets—a staple served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Even in the U.S., the ingredients are easy to find. And there aren’t too many of them: a few things for dashi, the ocean-y broth that forms the base of miso soup, and a few more for the soup.
from top to bottom: wakame, dried and soaked; kombu, dried and soaked; yellow and red miso pastes; green onions; bonito flakes
But like everything made with only a few ingredients, the details count. Miso preferences vary regionally in Japan. This was a problem when the Japanese army struggled to make a master miso soup formula that would appeal to soldiers from all over Japan. In her book Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power, and National Identity, Katarzyna Cwiertka writes that the army’s taste experiments conducted in the late 1930s discovered that a third of the soldiers thought the standard-issue miso soup too sweet while 10 percent found it too salty. It would be like getting barbecue fanatics to agree that a Kansas City sauce was better than one from North Carolina.
In her cookbook Washoko, Elizabeth Andoh says she varies her basic miso soup depending on what else she’s serving. To accompany intense, soy-glazed foods, she makes it with light barley miso. For milder main courses, she prefers richer miso flavor and uses darker miso pastes, like brown rice-enriched genmai miso.
You also can elect to mix different miso pastes together, which is what Andrea Nguyen recommends in her book Asian Tofu. This is what I decided to do.
My first efforts produced a mild, pleasant miso soup. Since I like miso soup in small quantities, I served mine in a teacup. The most time-consuming part was getting familiar with the process—and re-reading recipes—but now that I’ve made it once, it will be much easier to make again. So: one Japanese recipe down. Now I’ve got to work on the rest of the meal….
Here, recipes for dashi and miso soup.
- 4 (3-inch) pieces kombu
- 4 cups room temperature water
- ½ cups dried bonito flakes (katsuo-bushi)
- 2 pieces wakame, snipped into small pieces
- 4 to 6 ounces tofu, diced
- 3 to 3½ tablespoons miso (I used 1½ tablespoons each of red and yellow miso1 1 green onion, white and light green parts only, sliced
- To make the dashi: Line a fine-mesh strainer with muslin or cheesecloth. Heat the kombu and soaking water over medium-high heat until the water starts to gently simmer. Remove from the heat and scatter the bonito flakes over the surface.
- After 3 to 4 minutes, strain the dashi. (It’s OK if the bonito flakes haven’t fully dissolved.) You will have about 3½ cups of dashi.
- To make the miso soup: Soak the wakame until softened, 5 to 15 minutes, depending on the wakame. (It will unfurl and become tender enough to bite.) Drain.
- Bring the dashi to a boil over high heat. Add the tofu and cook for about a minute to heat through. Spoon a small amount of dashi in a heat-proof bowl and whisk in the miso to make a slurry. Stir the slurry into the dashi and taste, adding more miso to the soup if needed to boost flavor. Add the wakame and simmer for 30 seconds more.
- Divide the green onion among the serving bowls. Pour the soup into the bowls, dividing up the tofu and wakame evenly among the servings.