By Raul Dias
It is not trivia, like the one attesting to the fact that, despite being one of the main hallmarks of Japanese cuisine, miso (much like the other staple of ramen) originated in China that piques my interest. Nor is it the one that claims that it was first introduced to Japan 1,300 years ago by Buddhist priests. Or that the samurai adopted miso as a vital part of their diet thanks to its restorative powers.
Of all the morsels of miso nuggets I have gleaned over the years, it is the one about how during the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine on April 26, 1986, many Europeans consumed miso soup as a preventive measure against radiation diseases. And that is because this thick, highly savoury, umami flavour imparting paste—produced by fermenting soybeans with salt and kōji (the fungus aspergillus oryzae)—is said to contain a very important ingredient. That being dipilocolonic acid, an alkaloid that chelates heavy metals, such as radioactive strontium, and discharges them from the body.
An equally important discovery, at least for me, was the fact that miso need not even contain soybeans! Apparently, peasants and farm hands in Japan were once forbidden to use the soybeans they harvested to make their own miso. So, they used broken rice, or other grains such as millet and barley instead. In fact, I even came across a miso made of chickpeas here in India of all places. But more about that a little later.
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What brings this flavour bomb of a condiment to the forefront of this piece is not its very obvious savoury dish ingredient underpinnings. It’s the contrary. Sure, our taste buds have been introduced to miso in a hearty seaweed-tofu-miso soup, as an unctuous salad dressing teamed with sesame paste or as a marinade for a grilled seabass at myriad Japanese restaurants all over India.
But are we truly ready to munch on a miso-fronted cookie or sip on a cocktail that pays homage to it? Sure, say a host of pastry chefs and mixologists across the country that I’ve come across in the recent past.
“While miso is definitely not for the faint-hearted, those who understand the contrast of flavours it imparts to a dessert, appreciate it. Miso has an umami saltiness to it and it works really well with something like bittersweet chocolate," says Chef Bani Nanda, of the New Delhi-based Miam Patisserie. For her part, Nanda has recently worked on dessert that’s made with a miso ganache, a yuzu crumble and topped with seasonal fruits.
Putting a spin on a classic oatmeal cookie, Mumbai restaurant Sequel does a very unique miso, Kashmiri walnut, and brown butter cookie that’s sweetened with coconut sugar. The only major twist being the fact that the miso used here is not the de rigueur soybean one, but a rather outré house-made chickpea miso.
An icy twist
Taking the rather clichéd banana bread and jazzing it up with a tahini caramel and sending it off with a miso ice cream and a garnish of toasted pumpkin seeds and walnuts is Niyati Rao, partner-chef at Mumbai’s KMC*. And it was the remarkable versatility of miso that made it harmonise beautifully with this dessert, says Rao. Though she does speak of it as a rather exacting ingredient. “When you’re working with an unconventional ingredient like miso, the challenge lies in not knowing exactly how it will behave. There’s a fair amount of trial and error involved before achieving the desired end product. But it’s an enjoyable and rewarding process."
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Also going down the miso-caramel ice cream route is Amadora gourmet ice cream in Chennai. Currently out of stock, the ice creamery hopes to soon bring back this bestselling flavour to its two city outlets in Kilpauk and Velachery.
Taking the whole non-savoury application of miso on another tangent is the Miso Caliente cocktail on offer at Mumbai’s Pan Asian restobar Koko. Curated by Yao Lu from Union Trading Company, Shanghai—which was Asia’s number 45 for 2022 as part of the World’s 50 Best Bars—this umami forward scotch cocktail is the sum of its red miso paste, honey and nori (seaweed) parts.
“To accentuate the rich and distinct characteristics of miso, we combine miso honey with blended scotch, where honey enriches both the sweetness and body of the beverage. The finishing touch includes a subtle hint of red chili tincture, elevating the overall drinking experience," says Vineeth Krishnan, the restaurant’s beverage manager.
Miso truly seems to be having an outing for itself like never before in its new avatar as that secret new mystery dessert ingredient. One that will have your taste buds in a tizzy. Just ask me.
- FIRST PUBLISHED27.09.2023 | 09:00 AM IST