Back to dashi, its multifarious uses and manifold munificence…
So you’ve gently, slowly heated your konbu then kept it at 60 degrees C for an hour before removing the seaweed form the water; you’ve steeped your katsuobushi flakes in the hot liquid, and strained. You are left with a delicately golden liquid with a light, tangy aroma of the sea and… something else, something indefinably delicious, something not quite fishy, not quite meaty: umami.
You are now ready to create the most delicious miso soup you have ever tasted. You’d be surprised how many of even the poshest and most expensive Japanese restaurants use MSG-packed soup powders to make their miso soup and, though these taste perfectly okay and MSG is a wonderful thing (oh yes, next time someone at a party starts bleating that MSG gives them ‘headaches’ and ‘makes people’s brains melt’, tell them they are talking tripe and that they should buy my new book, Sushi and Beyond, which explains all about it, and also buy my other books, which have nothing to do with Japanese food, but are really great and will give them lots of better stuff to talk about at parties), they are mere shadows of the lip-smacking, other worldly deliciousness that is a proper miso soup made from scratch from primary ingredients. You’re excited, I can tell.
Here’s how you do it:
Gently warm your dashi again. Never, ever boil dashi. If you do, you risk that scene at the end of the first Indiana Jones film when the Nazis open the Ark of the Covenant and great swoopy smoke-ghosts envelop you in their evil, face-melting grasp. Or… your kitchen will just smell funny for a bit and your dashi might taste a bit bitter.
If you like, you could also add some dried shiitake mushrooms at this point and wait a few moments as they rehydrate in the warm liquid. Trust me, they really add something special to the flavour of the soup. How so?
Now the science bit (extracted from Sushi and Beyond. Professor Ikeda is the man who discovered umami in 1908, by the way):
“Umami has been identified in over forty compounds, but is most strongly present in glutamate and certain ribonucleotides, chief among them inosinate and guanylate. No, me neither, but the most important thing to know as far as Japanese food is concerned is that the Japanese are the world masters at maximising the umami in their cooking. This is best exemplified by one dish: miso soup. As Professor Ikeda discovered, konbu has more glutamate than any other foodstuff on earth, while katsuobushi, the other main base ingredient of the dashi, or ‘stock’ used to make miso soup (along with water), is one of the richest natural sources of inosinates. Meanwhile, shiitake mushrooms happen to be extremely rich in guanylate, and are often added to miso as well. That’s quite an umami triple whammy as it is, but the combination of these three ingredients generates far more umami flavour than the mere sum of its parts. When the glutamate of konbu meets the inosinic acid in katsuobushi and the guanylate of shiitake, the umami profile is multiplied by a factor of eight times. Apparently it drives one’s left lateral orbifrontal cortex doolally.
Hope you got that. There will be a quiz later.
Next, plop a couple of table spoons of miso paste into a bowl (miso paste is an inherently ‘ploppy’ substance, and we just have to forgive it for that, and move on). I use a common-or-garden light brown paste, but there’s no law that says you can’t experiment with the full and bewildering range of miso pastes made throughout Japan.
Add a couple of ladle-fuls of the dashi to the miso paste, and mix well with a fork. This is called tempering: it ensures that the paste will mix properly with the rest of the dashi when you add the miso-dashi mixture into the main pot of dashi (if you add the paste straight to the dashi, then a good deal of it will remain floating around in large, unappetising miso-bergs. And, as much as I worship at the fragrant altar of miso paste, no one wants an unexpected mouthful in the middle of lunch. It’s a bit pooey, to be honest.)
Again, not to be a bore, but do not let your miso soup boil, as you will kill off all the wonderful enzymes and bacteria that live in miso paste and are so very good for you.
What happens next depends on your personal taste and the type of miso paste you have used. Personally, I add a wee dash of mirin (a kind of sweet sake, used only for cooking), and a splash of soy sauce. This is probably sacriligious, but I also add a squeeze or two of lemon juice as well – there are few savoury things that don’t benefit from a bit of citrus.
You now have your basic miso soup, and very delicious it will be too.
For my lunch today (and most days, these days), I added some dried wakame seaweed to the soup, then poured it into a bowl over some soba noodles (soba noodles, made with buckwheat flour, are more minerally virtuous than those made with wheat flour, but you can use any noodles); and sprinkled over some freshly toasted sesame seeds (as with all nuts and seeds, toasting them releases their oils and flavour), and nicely spicy shichimi (Japanese seven spice mix).
My goodness, it’s good.