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[Photography: cups of miso soup - Credit: Andrew Twort]

Fermented soybeans mixed with fungus might not sound like culinary nirvana, but this moreish and intensely savoury Japanese seasoning – otherwise known as miso – is fast becoming an adored kitchen staple in the UK.

Sceptical? Sainsbury’s has reported a 32.5 per cent increase in sales of its own-brand miso paste in the past 12 months on the back of a boom in the popularity of Japanese ingredients. Scan restaurant menus and social media these days and it’s everywhere, anointing traditional Japanese seafood dishes right through to modern salads, desserts and even chocolate.

So what is it, exactly? Miso is as much an ancient art form as it is a highly prized condiment, made by fermenting soybeans, salt, the gut-friendly fungus Aspergillus oryzae (known as a koji mould) and sometimes rice or barley, traditionally in cedar kegs.  The paste comes in hundreds of different varieties, from sweet and mild to salty and pungent, depending on the grains, the length of fermentation and the region in which it is made.

Miso’s popularity dovetails with the current craze for all things fermented; like kimchi, sauerkraut and yoghurt, it contains good-for-you live bacteria believed to promote gut health. Miso is also loaded with protein, and in Japan it’s sold in vending machines alongside green tea as a hangover cure. But miso’s ’umami’ – the recently recognised complex, salty and savoury ‘fifth taste’ – is what really wins hearts in the kitchen. Miso is basically a flavour bomb; if you have a jar languishing at the back of your fridge, dust it off.

[Photography: fermented food such as miso (top right) and kimchi (bottom left) have become very popular - Credit: Haarala Hamilton]

I’ve used miso for years in Japanese dishes, from simple and soothing miso broth spiked with tofu, to glazes for poultry and fish. Australian chef and food writer Bill Granger introduced me to the wonders of miso butter; he pairs his with barbecued corncobs and I now slather my own version on everything from toast to steamed greens and roast vegetables. I also stir it into soups, stews and dressings simply to add depth of flavour.

Newly opened Frenchie restaurant in London’s Covent Garden serves a dish of veal and scallop tartare with miso and Parmesan for a double umami hit, while Peruvian restaurant Pachamama’s lamb belly with jalapeno and miso puree has won rapturous praise from critics. Some chefs are spooning miso into puddings, too. Chef and food writer Steve Parle says miso sticky toffee pudding is a winner, while London’s newest Japanese restaurant Sosharu has apple pie with miso butterscotch on the menu.

“It’s a great to use rather than salt because it imparts a totally unique level of seasoning,” says Anton Piotrowski, Chef Patron at Michel-starred The Treby Arms and executive chef at Glazebrook House Hotel in Devon. “It’s great for marinating fish and poultry, and we use it in a caramelized cauliflower puree with squid ink to go with scallops because it’s so high in umami. We’ve also used it in a white chocolate and custard tart, which was awesome, and with high quality chocolate and salted caramel.”

Bonnie Chung, founder of the UK’s first dedicated miso brand, Miso Tasty and author of Miso Tasty: The Cookbook (Pavilion, released August 11), says miso paste is a hugely useful pantry staple.

“Mix it with olive oil and mustard for an instant protein-packed dressing, and add a squeeze of lemon and a dash of rice wine for a marinade for fish, veg or chicken,” she suggests. “If you love salted caramel, melt down a teaspoon of sugar for every tablespoon of red miso for a quick salted-caramel flavoured sauce. It’s also brilliant for pouring over ice cream or for making chewy sweet and savoury popcorn. “Just like cheese and wine, the longer miso is fermented, the darker its colour and the more intense its flavour, so choose according to your taste. “It has the ease of use of a jar of pesto, the depth of flavour of a rich beef stock and the versatility of butter,” she says. What are you waiting for?

Marvellous miso recipes

One pot ginger-miso roast pumpkin and mushrooms

Miso mushrooms

Sirloin steak with miso

Classic miso soup

Miso and sweet potato cheesecake

This article was published in The Telegraph on 15th March 2016 by Sue Quinn, under the title “Why Britain has gone mad for miso”

Posted 433 weeks ago
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