Mama's Miso Soup

by Elizabeth Andoh

Most middle-aged Japanese are instantly transported back to childhood at the mere mention of their mama's miso soup. For those hailing from Kyushu and the southwest provinces of Japan's main island of Honshu, taste memories are likely to include a steaming bowl of breakfast soup seasoned with winy, caramel-colored, mugi (barley) miso. Those born in Nagoya are probably immersed in recollections of deep, burnished brown Hatcho miso soup afloat with silky cubes of tofu. Natives of Shikoku and the Kansai region, particularly those who grew up in Kyoto and Nara, are no doubt thinking fondly of miso zoni, the New Year's rice taffy porridge that is thickened with pale, creamy-sweet Saikyo miso. Preferences for one type of miso or another are typically linked to regional identity, though each household will develop its own, intensely personal, rendition.

Recently, a family quiz show had five children, ages 6-10, sample five different bowls of miso soup, each made by one of the children's mothers. All contestants had agreed to use abura age (fried bean curd), wakame (sea tangle), and scallions in their fermented bean paste soup, since this is a combination commonly found in many Japanese households. The miso pastes each mother used were different. The kids were blind-folded before being asked to sip from each of the bowls. A suspenseful drum roll preceded each child's announcement. Then, one by one, relief flooded over each mother's face as her child successfully identified mama's miso soup! I wonder, could such "brand loyalty" could be demonstrated in America with lunchbox standbys such as peanut butter and jelly or tuna fish sandwiches? Even chocolate chip cookies?

The imprinting of taste memory ensures that future generations will continue to crave the flavor of their youth. For an increasing number of Japanese now in their 20's and 30's, that will mean the taste and smell of mass produced, pasteurized miso rather than the heady aroma of textured soy pastes that had been made in vats, tubs and barrels in nearly every pre-war Japanese home. By the mid-1960's, when I first came to Japan, three commercially produced brands of miso dominated grocery shelf space: Marukome, Takeya, and Hanamaruki. As I write their names, I hear the jingles and see the images from their TV commercials and magazine ads: the Marukome bozu (little boy acolyte with shaven head), the Takeya mother in kappogi apron with fingertips reddened from cold well water (or perhaps from hot rice coaxed into lunchbox rice "sandwiches" called omusubi), Hanamaruki's logo traced in tune to "Omiso nara ... Hanamaruki" (If you're talking about miso, it must be ours!). These three companies, all with origins in the Shinshu district, what is today Nagano prefecture, continue to dominate the commercial arena.

Marukome, still with its bald, little boy logo, has focused on miso primarily as an ingredient in soup. It sells pre-seasoned, miso soup concentrates in plastic tubs and jars as well as packets of instant miso shiru soup mix. Hanamaruki also sells dashi iri miso (bean paste seasoned with stock), appealing to young mothers with little confidence, or time to spend, in the kitchen. For the growing numbers of consumers concerned about their daily intake of sodium, major miso producers have developed reduced salt products. Recently, there seems to be a revival of farmhouse-style inaka miso pastes, made the old-fashioned way. Even kits are available now, primarily in health food stores, to make miso at home. The phrase temae miso ("home-made miso") means "to toot your own horn," though the few miso pastes that I sampled from do-it-yourself kits would hardly be anything I would want to brag about.

When Japanese women marry, they are expected to forsake their own childhood food memories, and learn to make miso soup their mother-in-law's way. New brides can demonstrate loyalty and devotion to their husband's family by being quick and eager to learn new recipes. When I married into the Andoh family 28 years ago, I was a complete novice in the Japanese kitchen -- my New York Mom never made miso soup, though I'm convinced her matzo balls are the best ever. My mother-in-law, born in Meiji-era Japan, patiently introduced me to the world of Japanese cuisine. With affection and pride, I call her Okaasan; with deference to her skill and respect for her hard work, I refer to her nourishing miso-thickened soup as omiotsuke. This word, written with three honorific 'go' characters plus 'tsukeru' (to attach or fasten) implies a level of regard that the more generic term miso shiru (literally "bean paste broth"), or functional miso ji-date ("cooked with bean paste), fails to convey.

One of many delightful culinary quirks of the Sanuki region, from which my husband hails, is a liking for mellow miso soup brimming with slivers of stewed eggplant, and finely sliced myoga (an aromatic, distant "cousin" of gingerroot). Nestled at the bottom of each bowl of Okaasan's version of this soup, is a swirl of thin, white somen noodles. This summertime omiotsuke nourishes and refreshes me on many hot, humid mornings. Some days, the aroma of Okaasan's omiotsuke on my Tokyo stove is powerful enough to catapult me back to my first summer in Shikoku. I guess I must be middle-aged after all!

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