A rich, brackish condiment, miso is widely used in Japanese culinary and it actually distinguishes the nature of Japanese cooking. Usually, most Japanese start their day taking a miso soup prepared at home. Moreover, Japanese use miso to add flavour to an assortment of foods in many other foods they have throughout their day. The process involved in making miso is somewhat complex. To prepare this condiment you need soy beans and occasionally any grain like wheat or rice. These ingredients are mixed with salt to form a mould culture and subsequently aged in cedar vats for anything between one year and three years.

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Plenty of experience is needed to prepare miso since the process involved is quite complicated. As a result, it is not prepared at home. Incorporation of various ingredients and the different periods of time for which it is fermented actually produce dissimilar types of miso, whose flavour, color, aroma and texture are also different. Miso is considered to be a very healthy food as it contains saponins, isoflavones, and soy protein that is partially digested. In addition, it also contains live enzymes, especially miso that is not pasteurized.

Findings of a study revealed that women consuming three or additional bowls of miso soup every day actually have a decreased risk of developing breast cancer. Their risk of developing this deadly disease drops by about 40 percent in comparison to those who have just one bowl of miso soup daily. However, miso does have a negative side and that is its elevated salt content.

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Simply described, miso is a brewed paste comprising cultured rice (locally known as koji), beans and adequate amount of salt. While these ingredients are no doubt very simple, the biochemical processes that transform rice and beans into miso are quite incredible. Koji is basically a mold growing on rice and it is subsequently combined with cooked beans, usually soy beans. Then salt is added to the mixture and it is allowed to ferment - on several occasions for some months to about a few years. Misos that are sweeter and relatively lighter, such as white, yellow and chickpea miso, are fermented for under a year. On the other hand, darker miso, such as Hacho and red misos, are generally fermented for longer periods and their flavour as well as texture are comparatively richer. Normally, the different varieties of miso can be interchanged. However, one has to start experimenting with different varieties of misos in order to know the precise one they would like to use for specific recipes. It is worth mentioning here that according to the macrobiotics tradition, lighter misos are best suited during the warmer months. On the other hand, darker and richer misos are meant for the cooler months.

Types of miso

There are several different types of miso depending on their color, texture, and aroma. All varieties of miso are essentially made from koji combined with rice, soy beans or barley. These ingredients are brewed and subsequently aged in wooden vats, preferably those made from cedar wood. While the lighter variety of miso is aged for some months, those that are darker and have a thicker consistency are often aged for about two years.

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Generally you will not find miso in the supermarkets. It is mainly sold in the health stores or shops vending oriental products. Miso has a variety of colors, including creamy white, dark brown and red. Misos with light color are ideal for flavoring light colored soups and sauces. Miso is generally packed in air tight glass jars or plastic bags. Since a number of miso producers do not pasteurize their products, they usually keep a small gap in the package for ventilation. Miso is somewhat viscous and prior to being used it is necessary to add some water to it to make the substance slurry. You should never cook miso with any food for doing so will destroy the condiment's subtle flavour. Ideally, it should be added to food towards the end of cooking.

Health benefits

Miso contains elevated levels of various vitamins, especially vitamins B and K, protein and dietary fiber. Findings of several scientific studies have shown that miso encloses bacteria and enzymes, which facilitate digestion and assimilation of various nutrients. There are other studies that suggest miso is helpful in alleviating fatigue, lowering cholesterol, enhancing digestion and reducing the risks of developing cancer. At the same time, miso also possesses anti-aging properties.

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Japanese have a preference for miso soup and they like to take it daily. Often, it is argued that the Japanese have a sound health even when they are old because they consume miso. If consumed on a regular basis, miso soup is effective in building as well as reinforcing the immune system. In other words, people who consume miso soup regularly possess better abilities to combat various infections and diseases.

People in Japan use miso soup as a traditional remedy for treating common cold. It is believed that miso soup is very useful, especially at the beginning of a cold - within 4 to 6 hours after the first symptoms appear. In fact, the Japanese consume miso soup when they are sick. They consume it in the same way as people in the West take chicken soup during a cold weather.

Different types of miso soups are advised depending on the nature of cold one is suffering from. In case one feels feeble and deficient due to cold, it is recommended that they drink the dark variety of miso soup which has been fermented for a longer period. Ideally, they can take the red aka miso. On the other hand, to treat colds that make one feel hot as well as feverish, people are advised to take the lighter variety of miso soup, for instance, a white shiro miso.

Interestingly, people in many regions of Asia drink the miso soup to alleviate hangover. The diuretic effects of alcohol deplete water, sodium as well as other nutrients from the body. Drinking miso soup helps to replenish them all.

We are aware that excessive alcohol harms the lining inside the stomach. As miso soup is a fermented food, it contains healthy bacteria and helps to cure the stomach. At the same time, drinking miso soup also prevents one from feeling queasy. Miso soup contains several B vitamins and choline is prominent among them. These B vitamins facilitate prevention of alcohol build-up in the liver, while accelerating elimination of alcohol from our body. As a result, it helps to alleviate the consequences of hangover.

Miso soup also contains elevated levels of umami and its aroma as well as flavour help one to recuperate his/ her appetite. In addition, it is believed that miso soup made with soy beans is an excellent source of essential minerals like manganese and zinc, which possess vital antioxidant properties. Miso soup also contains elevated amounts of protein, dietary fiber, phosphorus and copper.

It has been found that consuming miso soup is associated with reducing the risks of specific types of stroke, which is medically termed cerebral infarct.

Although miso soups contain elevated amounts of salt, it has been found that it does not raise the blood pressure. In addition, researchers have hinted that since miso soup is prepared by fermenting soy bean, the basic content of the vegetable undergoes a change during the process. As a result, the resultant products possess a higher ability to support as well as promote our cardiovascular health.

Most of us are aware that soy miso contains isoflavone genistein which is associated with lesser chances of developing a few specific forms of cancer.

In some ways, it is proper to believe that the health benefits offered by miso also include the possibility of this food being "pre-digested". The fermentation process involved in making soy miso is facilitated by micro organisms like Aspergillus, which are effective in breaking down and metabolize fats, carbohydrates and protein present in soy beans, thereby changing them into smaller particles and simpler compounds that are easier to digest.

While several micro organisms and bacteria are involved in the process of fermenting miso, the most important as well as promising micro organism among them is perhaps Aspergillus oryzae. For instance, the bacterium Bacillus subtilis is also found in the fermentation of miso. This bacterium can reportedly develop a specific variety of vitamin K, which is also known as menaquinone -7 or MK-7.

It is worth mentioning here that menaquinone-7 (MK-7) is a vital nutrient for bone development and consuming adequate amounts of this vitamin helps to reduce the possibilities of developing osteoporosis. Moreover, this bacterium possesses the ability to survive in our body up to six days after consuming the food. As a result, we derive the benefits of vitamin K during this entire period.

In order to remain fit and healthy, it is very important for one to have a strong immune system. Miso soup contains various nutrients that are useful for promoting the health of our immune system.

In addition to the health benefits of miso soup discussed above, it has also been found helpful for the health of the intestines.

How to select and store

Normally, miso is sold in health stores and oriental shops and it comes in sealed glass jars or plastic containers. In order to ensure the freshness of the product you should check the sell-by date on the label of the container. In addition, it is also advisable to read the matter printed on the label to ascertain that the product does not contain any additive, for instance MSG (monosodium glutamate). Since the misos that are fermented for longer periods, they have a darker color and a more potent flavour. As a result, it is advisable that you take them as a heavier food. On the other hand, the light hued miso is not only lighter, but also more digestible and, hence, they are appropriate for use in soups, dressings and light sauces.

It is recommended that miso should always be stored in sealed containers in a refrigerator. When stored in this manner, miso will remain viable for use for about a year.

Side effects and cautions

When used in moderate amounts, miso does not have any notable side effect. This condiment has a brownish color and a very tangy as well as salty flavour. Based on the ingredients used, misos are of various different types. Moreover, the flavour as well as the digestive capabilities of miso differ depending on the ingredients used to prepare it.

In a way, miso is a type of soup that contains elevated levels of sodium. Precisely speaking, one serving of miso contains about 270 mg of sodium. According to the recommendations of the American Heart Association, under normal circumstances, no individual should consume sodium in excess of 480 mg per day.


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