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NIPPONIA No.36 March 15, 2006

Special Feature*
Traditional Seasonings
for Today's Tables
Seasonings make good food taste better, and Japanese kitchens use many. Soy sauce and miso production techniques take advantage of Japan's varied climate and its rich treasure house of ingredients. Kombu seaweed, dried bonito fish and other nutritious foods are used to make various types of stock that have become essential to Japanese cuisine. Seasonings have a long tradition and are still made with care and respect for the past.
Written by Torikai Shin-ichi and Sanada Kuniko
Photos by Sugawara Chiyoshi and Kono Toshihiko

Below left: This shiro-miso has a yellowish color and a mildly salty (ama-kuchi) taste.
Below middle: Mugi-miso made with malted barley.
Below right: Shinshu-miso, a kome (rice) miso.
Maruyama Miso Manufacturing began making shiro-miso and mugi-miso after the fourth-generation owner Maruyama Takashi took over.
Making miso the old-fashioned way.
The ingredients are placed in a wooden barrel, covered with a cotton cloth, and then weighted down with round stones.
Like soy sauce, miso (fermented soybean paste) is a very common flavoring, so common today that it is still used almost every day to make miso soup. In the old days it was made by hand in many homes. It hides the smell of fish or meat while giving the food more punch, and this is why it is often used in pot dishes cooked at the table and in stews.
Miso is made by steaming soybeans, salting and crushing them, then mixing them with a fermenting agent called koji mold.
The koji is first cultivated on soybeans, rice, barley or some other grain. The mixture is fermented and aged for several months, or even a year or so.
Miso manufacturing techniques are said to have come from China more than 1,300 years ago, and over the centuries many varieties have been produced throughout Japan. Three major varieties are kome-miso (made from rice koji), mugi-miso (from barley koji), and mame-miso (from soybean koji).
Maruyama Takashi says his customers are free to buy as much or as little miso as they want. “The company has always sold like that.” Maruyama Miso Manufacturing's Japanese-language website:
Kome-miso, the most common variety, comes in different colors and tastes, depending on the region. In colder parts of the country people tend to prefer a darker color and a higher salt content, while in the warmer south they go for a lighter color and a milder taste. Shinshu-miso, made in many places in Nagano Prefecture, sells throughout Japan and has the highest market share—it accounts for more than 30% of national production. It is favored for its pale color and light taste—lighter than you would expect for a fairly salty miso—and it goes well with other types of miso.
Maruyama Takashi is the fourth-generation owner of Maruyama Miso Manufacturing, a traditional maker in Azumino, Nagano Prefecture. He explains, “People say that Nagano's miso tastes best. I suppose that's because the water and air are pure, and because the climate is ideal—we are at a fairly high altitude and surrounded by mountains, so we have cold winters, warm summers, and excellent spring and fall weather.”
His company has followed the same manufacturing techniques since it was founded a century ago. The soybeans come from local farmers under contract, and are steamed over a wood fire burning in stoves made by the first owner—no gas or oil used here. “A wood fire gives off a soft, natural heat that lets the soybeans keep their nice flavor. We're just a small business, so I guess that's why we can do it the old-fashioned way,” he grins. “We give true value by offering our regular customers a product that has remained unchanged for a long time, something with our own unique taste.”


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