Updated: May 13, 2019
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The Definitive Guide to Japanese Miso Soup (+ Recipe)

Tokyo

Miso soup is a beloved staple of Japanese cuisine, and is eaten daily by many Japanese people. There are many ways to make the dish, and many types of miso that can be used. This guide will explain the ins and outs of the soup, and leave you with a recipe to try at home.

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What is miso soup?

味噌汁
Miso soup with daikon and tofu skins
Miso soup is the most common Japanese soup. It is usually brown in color (but can be anywhere from very pale to very dark), and is cloudy when stirred. Miso soup recipes abound, and each family has their own way of preparing the soup, but the dish's most essential elements are a dashi broth and miso paste. Depending on how it is prepared, the taste of a miso soup can be mild and gentle or bold and salty. No matter how it's prepared, miso soup is delicious!
dashi
The all-important dashi broth! This is where all the umami flavor comes from

Is miso soup vegetarian? Does it contain Fish?

As noted above, miso soup can be prepared in a variety of ways. The first step, however, is always to make a dashi broth. The most common dashi used for this broth consists of dried fish and seaweed.
pixta_47916770_S
Common dashi broth ingredients
If you don't have time to make your own broth, there are a variety of pre-made dashi powders that are easy to use and are most commonly made from fish and seaweed. Most instant miso soup that you can buy at the store will also contain these ingredients.
instant_dashi
Instant dashi powder -- the secret to quickly making delicious Japanese food
However, it is entirely possible for a miso soup to be vegetarian. A dashi of shiitake mushrooms and seaweed is also very delicious, and is a great option for vegetarians. The truth is, there are no rules when it comes to miso soup, and as long as you have a delicious dashi broth to start from, your soup will probably be great!
vegetarian_dashi
Dashi of shiitake and konbu

Various misos, various tastes

Which miso should I choose? What's the difference?

miso_pastes_multiple_kinds
Rice mold, wheat mold, and soy mold miso (left to right)
Miso paste is made by fermenting soy beans (soya beans) with moldy rice or wheat and salt. That sounds pretty gross, but its actually a very natural process that produces a healthy product. The fermentation process can take anywhere from several months to more than a year, and produces a salty paste (miso), that can be used in a variety of ways.
kome_miso
Rice mold miso

The vast marjority of miso produced in Japan is made with rice mold, and is usually lighter in color. This miso is the standard in Eastern Japan (including Tokyo).

In western Japan (especially Kyushu, shikoku and the Chugoku region) wheat mold is often used, giving the miso a slightly different taste. Generally, misos made with rice mold tend to have more umami and saltiness, whereas wheat mold misos are milder with more aromatic notes.
wheat_miso
Wheat mold miso
Yet another type of miso is made using soybean mold, and is the darkest in color of all the misos. This strong-flavored miso has a characteristic red color, and is preferred in Nagoya.
red_miso
Red miso, made from soybean mold
In addition to the types of miso listed above, 'awase' miso is made by combining different types of miso together, creating a different balance of flavor. There are hundreds of misos to choose from, so try a few different kinds until you find which one you like the best!
awase_miso
'Awase' miso

Health benefits of miso soup

miso_soup_bowl_2
Tofu miso soup
Miso soup is a fermented food, so just like yogurt, it is full of probiotics and is great for gut health. It is also known as a cancer-fighting food, and is said to help prevent inflammation. Wait, there's more! Miso helps regulate digestive health, relieves fatigue, and decreases cholesterol and blood pressure.

That being said, there is also a lot of salt in miso, so you should remember to keep everything in moderation. If the miso soup you just made tastes super salty, that's because it is. Go easy on the miso and add it a little at a time while cooking.

Miso soup recipe

Follow the directions in the video for a basic miso soup (recommended for your first time).
Once you feel a little more comfortable, feel free to experiment with other ingredients. Try adding daikon raddish, thin slices of potato, or even natto! My favorite way to make miso soup is by simmering some clams to make a nice broth before adding the miso paste and some chopped green onions at the end. Delicious!

Happy miso soup making!
DeLong
I live in west Tokyo and spend my time thinking about food and going bouldering.

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