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Seriously Asian: The Magic of Miso Marination

"I don't like to play favorites because all of my miso tubs fill specific needs, but I'm a sucker for the Saikyo miso."

Though we live in modern times, some of our best foods are echoes of bygone days, when refrigeration was not readily accessible. Confit. Pickles and jams. Cured hams and salami. Dried jerky. Preservation techniques still abound in our age of technology because food that has been altered to last longer usually tastes really good.

Case in point? Miso marination, a technique that was traditionally used to preserve fish for its long journey inland. Preservative properties aside, when food is marinated in a mixture of miso and alcohol, the items assume the unique flavor of the miso itself.

Miso marination is my solution to a busy workday or a tough cut of beef. In the morning I'll take my choice of protein, be it seafood or meat, and smother it with a mixture of miso, sake, and mirin. In the evening, I'll wipe the item dry and plop it onto the grill or frying pan. The results are delicious every time because miso is an omnipotent ingredient, enhancing whatever it touches.

A miso marinade only ever needs three components: miso, alcohol, and some saccharine form such as mirin or sugar. The sugar content in the mirin guarantees a crisp and nicely-charred surface; the miso and sake contribute to a tender and flavorful interior. Best of all, miso-marination can be applied to a variety of meats and fatty fish, from steak to salmon and sablefish.

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So many miso options. Photograph from shindohd on Flickr

Miso is becoming increasingly available at grocery stores, yet we may not think to use it much beyond soup. In the simplest terms, miso is an aged paste made from a fermented rice starter, coupled later with soybeans. Sometimes barley or soybeans alone are used for the fermenting agent but in the United States, we are usually dealing with rice fermentation. Production starts by steaming or roasting the rice; soybeans are then added to the grains and everything is mashed together and fermented to produce the paste.

From that elementary procedure comes a gamut of miso types. Like all artisanal products, the methods for different kinds of miso can vary in fascinating ways.

I own miso in all the colors of the soybean rainbow; my spectrum starts with shiromiso, the palest and sweetest of all miso, and ends with a nutty brown miso, robust in taste and pebbly in texture. In between there's akamiso, a subtle dark-yellow miso that's a combination of its white and brown counterparts, and a dashi miso, which contains a bit of bonito seasoning.

I don't like to play favorites because all of my miso tubs fill specific needs, but I'm a sucker for the Saikyo miso, a particular type of shiromiso that is powerfully sweet and winey. Made in Kyoto Prefecture, the salt content of Saikyo miso is not much higher than five percent. (Compare that to the brown or red types of miso, which possess a salt content of thirteen percent or so). Whenever I take home a new package of Saikyo miso, I stick my chopstick into its smooth, pale paste and swipe a nub to eat. This miso is perfect. Buttery-smooth in texture, it really smacks of the bean.

While I use Saikyo miso to marinate different types of fish and seafood, beef requires a stronger and darker miso. In this week's experiments with miso marination, I selected beef short ribs, a cheap and flavorful cut that can sometimes be too chewy. After marinating and getting a quick pan-fry in my trusty cast iron, the meat was juicy and tender with a clear note of miso in the backdrop. The presence of the miso lent an aged taste to the beef, a desirable quality sought after in more expensive cuts of steak. (Miso marination, by the way, works well on cuts like ribeye, though the better the quality of the meat, the less I want to tamper with it.)

On the seafood front, I smothered scallops from my local fishmongers into a miso mixture. Seared quickly on the cast iron, the scallops were sweet and velvety--the perfect canvas for a mixture of Saikyo miso and red miso. The scallops were delicious, served both hot and tepid. Once they cooled slightly, I diagonally sliced them, marveling at their resemblance to sashimi.

Finally, miso marination is commonly employed with Chilean sea bass. Buying sustainably caught Chilean sea bass can be difficult and expensive. Not to worry! There is a fish that is just as fatty, just as buttery and flaky, but with a sweeter and more intense taste of the ocean. It goes by "Black Cod" and "Butterfish" but it's actually the Sablefish, a homey-looking bottom dweller that swims about in the murky depths of the sea preying on crustaceans, worms, and other small fish. Sablefish marinated in miso is delicious and awe-inspiring enough to be on your list of "last meals ever."

If you do not yet have a collection of miso tubs, drop by your nearest Asian market or Whole Foods to have a look-see at the dizzying array of choices. Experiment with different types of miso and different forms of protein. The sophistication of your end result belies the ease of this essential preparation.

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Miso Marination

Adapted from The Japanese Kitchen by Hiroko Shimbo.

About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, My Chalkboard Fridge.

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