For a lot of people, Miso soup is one of those exotic dishes that we only have as an appetizer during our once-annual visit to a sushi restaurant. Maybe sushi outings are more common for other people than they are for me, but I’m still willing to bet that miso soup is not a staple in the diets of most westerners. How many of us even know what miso really is, let alone how to make soup out of it? For many years, I was just as ignorant as the next guy. One day, when a miso soup craving came upon me, I started to wonder about the nature of this delicious appetizer, and I’m glad I did.
As it turns out, miso soup is fairly straightforward and easy to make. Traditionally, it consists of just two or three ingredients. As with many dishes, there are many variations on miso soup, but at its heart it consists of dashi, a traditional Japanese broth, and miso, a paste made out of fermented soybeans. Prepared miso soup is topped with sliced scallions, or green onions, and served hot.
Although it only has a couple of ingredients, making miso soup takes a little practice. The hardest part is making the dashi. Dashi is a broth made from water and bonito flakes. Bonito flakes are made of dried fish, and they’re what gives miso soup its subtle seafood flavor. These days, you can purchase bonito flakes at natural grocery stores, but they tend to be available cheaper at Asian supermarkets.
How to Make Dashi
The difficult thing about making dashi is that it’s crucial to maintain the right water temperature. If the water is too hot, the bonito flakes will cook and a foul fish flavor will be released. If the water is too cool, the bonito flakes won’t release the delicate taste needed for the dashi.
Here’s how I do it:
I measure out ¼ to ½ cup of bonito flakes and get them ready in a small bowl. Then I put 4-6 cups of water on the stove to boil. Some people say to add the bonito flakes to the water and then remove the water from the heat just before it starts to boil. This can be a delicate procedure, though, and I’ve found that it’s easier to boil the water first and then turn the heat off. When the water has just backed off from a boil, I add the bonito flakes. After about 30-60 seconds, the bonito flakes start to sink to the bottom of the pot. When most of the flakes have sunk, pour the dashi through a strainer and discard the flakes.
Don’t worry about whether you have gotten the dashi right. Although it’s easy to mess it up, it’s also very easy to tell when you have messed it up. Once or twice, I added the bonito flakes too soon, and the resulting fishy flavor was totally unpalatable! Luckily, bonito flakes are pretty inexpensive, so it’s no big deal to start again.
Adding the Miso
When the dashi is complete, the miso soup is almost done. The final step is to add miso. White miso (called shiro miso in Japanese) is best, and can be found at natural grocery stores or Asian markets. Traditionally, the miso (2-3 tablespoons for 6 cups of broth) is added to just a little broth, then added to the individual bowls of soup. This is what gives miso soup its interesting cloudy look. It’s possible to add the miso to the whole pot of dashi, but the miso tends to settle, so it must be mixed well and served immediately. A sliced scallion or two should be sprinkled on top of the soup, and then it’s ready to serve! Some people add tofu, seaweed, mushrooms, or other vegetables to their miso soup, but sometimes the elegant basic dish is best.