What is Japanese miso?

What is Japanese miso?

Miso is fermented soybean paste. It’s one of the important Japanese seasonings. Miso is written as 味噌 in kanji but it’s also often written as みそ in hiragana.

KOJI

Miso is made with soybeans, salt, and 麹(Koji).
Koji is a kind of ingredient that consists of Koji mold and can be made with grains like rice and barley or beans.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Koji mold, it’s a unique mold only found in Japan and it was recognized as the national mold in 2006.
This mold means a lot to Japanese food culture. I can’t imagine what kind of food culture we would have if there wasn’t this mold in Japan.

There are three types of koji that are used to make miso.

米麹(kome koji ) is cultured with koji mold and rice. Kome means rice.

Kome/rice koji

This is the most common koji and it’s widely used to make many types of fermented food such as miso, soy sauce, mirin, sake, etc.
You can also buy it at local supermarkets.

豆麹(mame koji) is cultured by koji mold and soybeans. Mame means beans. This koji is usually used for making miso.

Mame/ beans koji

麦麹 (mugi koji) is cultured by koji mold and barley. Mugi means barley.

Mugi koji

This Koji is used to make miso as well as two other types of koji. It’s also used to make shochu which is a popular alcoholic beverage like sake made from kome/rice koji.

Koji is very beneficial for our health. It increases your metabolism, helps digestion, and enhances immunity.


Miso is classified by ingredients, colors or flavors. It’s also very regional. So, there are many types of miso here in Japan and it’s a little bit confusing for even Japanese people.

The differences between ingredients

There are three types of miso grouped by the ingredients, Kome/rice miso, mame/beans miso and mugi/barley miso.

Kome miso is made with kome koji, soybeans and salt. This is the most common miso in Japan. It’s used nationwide and there are a variety of colors and flavors.

Kome/ rice miso

Mame miso is made with mame koji, soybeans, and salt. It’s very dense and has a thick umami flavor.

Mame/ beans miso

Mame miso is preferred around Aichi prefecture (No.23 on the map below). It’s also often used for miso soup in restaurant menus or used as a sauce for some dishes.

Mugi miso is made with mugi koji, soybeans and salt.

Mugi/barley miso

It’s popular in the Kyushu area (purple area on the map below). Mugi miso is relatively sweet compared to other types of miso.

The differences in color

Miso has a wide range of colors.
Light color miso is called 白みそ(shiro miso) which means white miso.
Dark color miso is called 赤みそ(aka miso) which means red miso.
There are gradations of color from light to dark, and the color is depending on the level of fermentation. Miso fermented for a longer time is darker.

Saltiness and sweetness

The level of saltiness and sweetness is different depending on the amount of contained koji and salt. Miso added more koji is sweeter. In general, miso made in northern regions are salty, and made in southern regions are sweet.

A large variety of miso

There are so many kinds of miso in Japan. Each region makes some different flavored miso. Also, many food manufacturers make their blended miso. You can see a variety of miso products in the Japanese market.

I recommend visiting shops specializing in miso if you have the opportunity.

The shops have a variety of regional miso and blended miso. Also, you can sample all of the miso there. You’ll probably be surprised by the differences between each miso.

Sano Miso Ginza Branch

You are able to see detailed information about each miso such as region, flavors and what kinds of ingredients go well with the miso.

Sano Miso Ginza Branch

Everyone has different tastes. People tend to prefer the miso from their region. For example, my mother liked mugi miso because she was from Kyushu. On the other hand, I like “Edo ama miso” which means “Tokyo sweet miso“. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean I use that particular miso for everything.
Luckily, there’s suitable miso depending on the dish. I’m going to add what kind of miso I use in my recipes.

In the past, a very long time ago, Japanese people were banned from eating meat for both religious and practical reasons. During that time Japanese people relied on miso as an important source of protein. Koji increases the absorption of protein. It should be good for vegans as well.

Nowadays, miso is well known as healthy food. Also, the delicious taste is known around the world. I’ve recently seen French chefs use a small amount of miso in their sauce to add a little extra umami flavor.

One of the many amazing things about miso is the endless ways it can be used. I hope after reading this, you’ll find a creative way to use miso in your next dish.

Bon Appétit!

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