Plumbing the Depths of Miso Soup

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Massachusetts has seen strangely little snow this year. But when I woke up at my parents' house in South Hadley one recent morning, lacy flakes were falling swiftly from a gray-white sky. I was headed to South River Miso, in the town of Conway, that day to meet the founders, Christian and Gaella Elwell, and see how the fermented paste is made. With snow swirling around me, the drive there felt like a slow-motion reel of one-lane roads, fields, and old New England barns. Once I arrived, I found South River's Japanese-style timber farmhouses, and the pine-covered hills behind them, blanketed in downy drifts, the nearby creek frozen blue.

We didn't use South River miso at home when I was growing up, even though the Elwells started making it fairly close to where my parents live, at around the same time I was born. The truth is, I didn't even know about South River until I moved to Brooklyn, where they stock it in my food co-op and in local frou-frou stores. The varieties at South River are made the old-fashioned way—unpasteurized, wood-fired, double-fermented, and very chunky, they are artisanal in the best way possible.

At South River, the beginning of the whole miso journey, as Christian Elwell calls it, is koji, cooked rice inoculated with a fermentation culture. And on the day I visited, the process of making it was already under way. Two employees poured buckets of cooked rice from a huge, wood-fired steamer onto two long boxes lined with muslin cloth. The rice was so hot that the air turned hazy, and the windows inside the farmhouse started to fog up. They sprinkled a powder of Aspergillus oryzae spores onto the rice and transferred it to "the crib," a covered wood box that would be stored overnight in a small, warm room. The mixture would then be shuffled around into smaller boxes to get the fermentation to progress just right. Then it would be foot-stomped with soybeans, and fermented again in cypress vats. Ultimately, what starts out as rice and mold becomes a pungent, nutrition-packed miso, which is used in pastes, marinades, and, my favorite, miso soup.

Elwell, who has the soft, slow intonation of a practiced monk, learned how to make miso in the 1970s from macrobiotic healer Naboru Muramoto. To this day, he talks about his work in spiritual terms. And, as I listened to him, I couldn't help thinking to myself that he is something of a miso mystic. "Food is sacred," he said. "And food making is a sacred activity."

There are untold varieties of miso. Some dark as resin and smoky. Others sunshine-yellow, smooth, and sour. Among the most common types is mellow shiro, or white miso, made from rice, barley, and soybeans and aged for just a few weeks. Aka, or red miso, has a similar makeup, but is aged for several years, the long fermentation resulting in a Maillard reaction that turns it brown. The legendary shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu had hatcho miso—made with only soybeans and fermented for almost three years until it was quite pungent. It was brought by boat to Tokyo from his hometown of Okazaki.

Miso has been in Japan since at least the seventh century, but it's unclear whether it was brought over by Chinese monks or somehow spontaneously invented in both countries. What is certain, though, is that miso soup—miso paste stirred into dashi (stock)—is an entirely Japanese creation, and a product of the Kamakura period (1185–1333). For warlords like Tokugawa, miso soup, along with rice and pickles, was often breakfast. But it wasn't just for samurais: Zen monks, palace nobility, and poor farmers all ate it. Today, it's a cornerstone of the Japanese concept of a meal—ichijū-sansai, or soup and three side dishes. In some ways, to eat miso soup is to be Japanese.

When I was growing up, miso soup was something of a special event in our house. My brothers, Ryoji and Tomi, and I called it "Grandma Soup," because the only time we ever had it was when our grandparents drove from Pennsylvania to our house in western Massachusetts. My grandma presented it with a great flourish in little black lacquer bowls with matching lids on a black lacquer tray. When you removed the lid, a puff of steam escaped like magic. Below was cloudy, mysterious. We plunged the murky, brackish depths for little cubes of tofu, rubbery wakame, and sharp scallion. And then we slurped the dashi straight from the bowls, our bellies warmed and mouths coated salty.

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Back then, kids would ask where I was from, as if it were inconceivable that an Asian—half-Asian, mind you—could be from here, too. In our town, you could count all the minority families on two hands. Maybe that's why miso soup, the everyday food for millions in Japan, seemed so special. Being Japanese was foreign to us, too. That patina of foreignness wasn't so bad for us; it was different for my grandparents' generation.

On December 7, 1941, my grandma, Grayce Kaneda, was a music major at the University of the Pacific–Stockton, and my grandfather, Hiroshi Uyehara, an engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water. Then kaboom. The next day, the headlines read: "JAPS BOMB PEARL HARBOR." They met at the Rohwer concentration camp in Arkansas, uprooted and incarcerated without charge, like 100,000 other Japanese Americans.

My grandpa used to say that when they met, my grandma was a star and he was a nobody. The second part wasn't true, but the first part was. Grandma was a national debate champion, a certifiable firecracker, formidable at 4'11". Grandpa was tall and quiet. He had a broad smile and big dimples. They taught Sunday school together at the camp. The idea that he could be a spy is almost funny, if you can forget how humiliated he was to be fired from his job and thrown into prison.

We didn't talk about the camps with my grandparents, not at Thanksgiving, not at Christmas, and not at any dinner with miso soup. You wouldn't say, "Please pass the shoyu," and then, "Tell us about the time you were imprisoned for having slanty eyes." We didn't talk about my grandma's weekly trips to Washington, DC. And we didn't talk about it on August 10, 1988, either. That's when President Reagan signed HR 442, which provided a formal apology to the Japanese Americans and $20,000 for each of the 80,000 living survivors, some $1.6 billion.

It is amazing to me that I don't remember this day. I don't remember my mom getting off the phone and delivering the news. I don't remember toasting with my family. As far as I remember, it never came up. I read about it later. I read that Grayce Uyehara was the first executive director for the lobbying arm of the Japanese American Citizens League. And I read that HR 442 wouldn't have happened without Grayce Uyehara. Grayce Uyehara, my grandma.

I think about my grandma when I make miso soup. I believe it's best early in the day, before the air has been filled with that jittery gotta-get-to-work pulse and the sunlight is still soft. That's the ideal time to watch wisps of steam drifting up and dissolving into the morning air—it's as mesmerizing and comforting as a crackling fire on a cold night. I watch the soup's hot breath and wonder if I should have done something like Grandma. Fought for a cause, righted a wrong. Did my grandparents struggle all their lives so that I could do this? I guess you could say that they fought so we could do whatever we wanted. Sometimes I'm not so sure.

I'd like to say that my recipe was passed down from generation to generation in the folds of my great-great-great-grandmother's kimonos. Certainly, I was hoping to find an ancient family heirloom when I snatched my grandparents' recipe box the summer we had to clean out their things. But the recipe I found was copied from a cookbook, published in 1977, for a San Francisco restaurant. I found it in between several green plastic pieces of sushi grass and about nine different recipes for the lead-bomb bran muffins that my grandpa faithfully ate every morning. It called for niboshi dashi. Distinct from the more commonly known dashi made with bonito flakes, it uses little silvery sardines, their tiny heads snapped off, and also sake, ginger, and two different kinds of miso. Fancy stuff.

When I excitedly told my mother about this obscure and intricate recipe, she looked at me with pity. "Oh, honey, Grandma used dashi powder," she said. "And only white miso." I should have known that wasn't the recipe my grandma made for us. I remember going grocery shopping with her to buy nori. She darted back and forth, examining different packages before settling on the cheapest one. Grandma was a good home cook, but between four kids, a full-time job, and activism, you'd better believe her meals were economical and efficient, not some paean to the high art of Japanese cuisine. The kind of miso soup my grandma made is one of the most common varieties: tofu, wakame, scallion. You can find versions as dull as dishwater at any old strip-mall sushi restaurant. But it can be magnificent when given a little love.

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For many years, I thought of miso soup as a fixed recipe, always made with the same ingredients. But miso soup can reflect the seasons, too. I found this out recently when I visited Yuji Haraguchi, a Tokyo native, at his restaurant Okonomi, a spare 12-seat place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that serves a traditional Japanese breakfast. "Dashi is about extracting flavor out of ingredients into liquid," Haraguchi told me. "And it's about knowing the right temperature and how long it takes for each ingredient." Haraguchi is precise. His sweater looked brand-new, his black wool cap was perched just so. I watched as he used a thermometer to make his dashi, patiently heating the water with kombu until just a few bubbles came to the water's surface, removing the thick flap of seaweed, and then bringing the water to a howling boil with bonito flakes. He weighed barley miso (for earthiness) and white miso (for sweetness) to get an even split of the two. Haraguchi's miso soup is the prettiest I've ever seen. It looked like spring, even in the dead of winter.

"I like to use three colors and textures—a leaf, a stem, and a root," he told me. "In Japan, we say more color is better because it represents different nutrition." Haraguchi also adheres to the noble concept of mottainai, a call to forgo waste. He looks at a vegetable as several different dishes, which means that kale stems, along with turnip and carrot bits, sometimes go into miso soup instead of the trash bin. I nodded my head when he told me this and thought about all the half bunches of scallions that had withered to a crisp in the back of my fridge. I made a vow to myself to use kale stems from now on—I live in Brooklyn, after all.

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"You can put anything in miso soup," says chef Hiroki Abe of Manhattan's EN Japanese Brasserie. "It's a stage." Add pork and sliced root vegetables and it becomes tonjiru, or add a slew of other ingredients for nabemono, a hot pot. EN Japanese Brasserie serves no fewer than four versions of miso soup, including one made with a satiny house-made tofu, another with fish heads, and a vegetarian version. But, glancing over the menu recently, I was most curious about asari no miso shiru, clam miso soup, a common version in Japan, but not one I'm familiar with.

In his kitchen, I watched as Abe rinsed off a piece of dried kombu, dusty with sea salt. He filled a pot with water, added the seaweed and a handful of tiny clams, and cranked up the heat, removing the kombu shortly after and then the clams after they had all popped open. There were no bonito flakes in this dashi, he said, because their flavor would clash with that of the clams. He whisked in the miso—a lot of white, a little bit of red—directly in a pot inside a noodle strainer, so that it dissolved quickly. Then he poured the broth over the clams and topped the bowl with mitsuba leaves, wild Japanese parsley. The soup was both salty and delicate, with a clear bell ring of briny clam that was elevated, not obscured, by the miso's mellow funk and the kombu's vegetal undertones. I'd never realized that miso soup could be like this, something so pure and elemental.

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Meanwhile, Chef Tadashi Ono, coauthor of Japanese Soul Cooking, makes a miso soup similar to what we called "Grandma Soup." In the basement of Brooklyn's Ganso Yaki, I watched as he covered twiggy dried wakame with cold water until it bloomed into tender ribbons in just a few minutes. Ono told me that he woke up every morning in Tokyo to his mother making miso soup and rice. She used to soak little sardines overnight for niboshi dashi, just like on my grandma's recipe card, the one she may have never had time to use.

Ono's approach to the stock is a bit looser than the other chefs': He brings the water and kombu to a boil before removing it and adding the bonito flakes. He shrugged when I asked him if the kombu gets bitter from the high temperature. It's all a question of taste.

"If you have good dashi, you don't need too much miso," he said as he whisked a few tablespoons of red and white miso into a noodle-soup strainer in the pot and added cubes of tofu and wakame. He portioned it out into little black lacquer bowls and added slivers of scallion. It was darker and richer than my grandmother's version, but I liked it a lot, particularly on that sleety day. Does he still have miso soup for breakfast? Only on Sundays. Bonito or niboshi? He laughed. He doesn't bother with "that overnight soaking business." He uses the freeze-dried dashi powder at home now—and so does his mother.

There's a term in Japanese, isshokenmei, which means "to go all in." It is samurai in origin. I wish I could say that I've known this for a very long time—like when I went out onto the soccer field, my mother would whisper "isshokenmai" into my ear, and then I'd go kick ass. But I only know about it from reading articles about my grandma. She orchestrated a campaign for 100,000 letters and another 100,000 mailgrams. She whipped the Nisei congressmen in line. She made sure stuff happened. Isshokenmai.

While I never fought for a cause or righted a wrong like my grandma, I suppose you could say I went isshokenmai on miso soup. At home, I don't use freeze-dried dashi powder, not that there's any shame in the convenience staple now used across Japan. But if you have the time, it's soothing to watch the bubbles slowly form around the kombu and the liquid turn a pale greenish gold. I like the subtle aroma released by the bonito flakes in hot water, and seeing spoonfuls of miso turn to a muddy blur in the pot. I don't make my grandma's miso soup recipe per se, but I do make "Grandma Soup" with the same pride that she did. These days, I make asari no miso shiru when I want to taste the sea and pluck at teeny little clams. I make my tofu scallion soup with darker miso, not white miso, because I like the extra funk. I learned the subtleties of dashi from professional chefs and the alchemy of miso in New England. It's the work of being Japanese when you're not. It's the effort my grandma made leafing through English-language Japanese cookbooks, and my grandpa made tracking down koto music—a strange but comforting urge to connect with your ancestors by any means.

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Now when I go to the small grocery store around the corner from me in Brooklyn, I grab a box of pea shoots and the smallest watermelon radish to make mixed vegetable miso soup with last night's kale stems. In the cold case, in between whey tonics with mustachioed labels and artisanal beet yogurt, there is South River Miso from my home state, organic tofu made in Pennsylvania, and jars of massive, beautiful umeboshi (pickled plums) from Colorado. A lot has changed in this country since the days when Japs were told this was a white man's land. I can't remember the last time someone asked me where I'm from. I feel guilty picking up that jar of $13 umeboshi, knowing that my grandma would never have indulged in something so expensive. But I buy them anyway. Isshokenmai?

One of my favorite stories about my grandma is from her organizing days. Grant Ujifusa, the redress strategy chair, was a month late on delivering a 700-word strategy paper for the lobbying arm of the Japanese American Citizens League. He'd been procrastinating on it for a month. Grandma called him up. "Why not come down to Philadelphia for a day?" she asked. "Maybe a change of scene will help." When he showed up in the afternoon, my grandma led Mr. Ujifusa, a former football star, into a room with a desk, a typewriter, and paper. "If you expect to have dinner, don't come out until you're finished," she said, and shut the door behind her. At 7:30 p.m., he sat down to dinner with my grandparents.

I'm not sure what they served that night. It could have been beef tacos or a chicken basil sauté from that recipe box. By the time I'd heard the story, it was too late to ask her. And I'd rather not ask Mr. Ujifusa. I like to think that on that evening, they started with miso shiru, most likely made with dashi powder and whatever white miso was cheapest, pausing for a moment to peer into their steamy, murky bowls before going all in.