Miso is an ancient superfood eaten in Japan for over a millennia. Learn about the history of miso and how it evolved over the ages to be embraced as the national soul food.
Miso, a fermented soybean paste, has such a rich importance in Japan that the cuisine and culture may have unfolded differently without it. It may surprise you how this unassuming brown paste has been so vital to the Japanese!
So how has miso evolved throughout the ages to become a staple ingredient found at any supermarket? The captivating history may bring out the food nerd in you. Let’s take a look!
The history of miso is a little murky, but one theory says that it originated in ancient China and brought over to Japan around the 6th century by Buddhist monks.
Called Hishio/Sho (醤, the same Chinese character for fermented Chinese condiments such as doubanjiang, tianmiangjiang, the Korean chili paste gochujang and also used to write soy sauce 醤油) or Shi/Kuki (豉), it was a fermented food product that may hails back to the 11th century B.C.
Hishio/Sho was made of pounded wild animals or fish mixed with salt, alcohol, and koji, which was then fermented in pots for over 100 days. Shi/Kuki was made of soybeans or grains and salt. The fermentation process allowed long-term storage of precious foodstuffs, which was important for the hunter-gatherer and early agricultural society.
Another theory is that a prototype of miso existed in Japan as early as the Yayoi period (300 BC to 300 AD). There is evidence that there was a culture of salting and fermenting foodstuffs, such as wild animals, fish, and grains. As Japan has a temperate climate, it’s not surprising that fermentation culture existed before the introduction of Hishio/Sho/Shi/Kuki by the Chinese.
Regardless of its origins, the first written record of this fermented product was in the “Taihō Ritsuryo” (『大宝律令』 “The Taihō Code,” 701) and noted it as Misho (未醤, literally “not yet Hishio/Sho”), a term that did not exist in China. It is assumed that the Japanese produced their own version of Hishio/Sho and this term evolved over time to be called “Miso.”
Miso, Uniquely Japanese
The oldest record of the term “miso” (written as 味噌) dates back to the Heian period (794 – 1185), written in “Nihon Sandai Jitsuroku” (『日本三代実録』”The True History of Three Reigns of Japan,” completed in 901). It was recorded that a monk received his salary in miso sent from Ōmi Province (present-day Shiga prefecture).
It’s also mentioned in “Engishiki” (『延喜式』”Procedures of the Engi Era”, completed in 927), where it notes that the nobility received their salary in miso and mochigome. Hence, miso was a luxury reserved only for the upper class and virtually unknown among the commoners.
The miso eaten during the Heian era was made by salting soybeans, then drying it. Easily picked up with chopsticks, it was consumed in small amounts as a seasoning for steamed vegetables or fish, eaten with rice or as a salty snack with sake. It was also used for medicinal purposes.
But it wasn’t long when rumors of this guarded food spread outside the nobility and monastery. With rice cultivation spreading across the country at the end of the Heian era, miso transforms to a product fermented with rice koji, and regional miso made with soybeans, rice, and wheat appears.
At long last, the growing demand for miso spurred the opening of miso specialty shops in Kyoto (the capital at the time). Miso was even sold among other daily necessity shops such as silk, cotton, combs, and needles.
The Birth of Miso Soup
In the Kamakura period (1185-1333), miso undergoes a radical change when Zen monks studying in China brought back the mortar and pestle. The monks would grind up the grainy miso in the mortar and dissolved the paste in hot water to make miso soup.
This method of consuming miso spread among the samurai class, who adapted the concept Ichiju Issai (一汁一菜, “one soup one dish”) to their daily meal. Unlike its current form Ichiju Sansai (一汁三菜, “one soup three dishes”), the meal was simple; a bowl of brown rice, dried fish, and miso soup. But this meal was in no way nutritionally deficient as the samurai obtained their daily caloric needs from the brown rice, calcium and protein from the fish, and essential nutrients from the miso.
As written in the Imagawa Oozoushi (『今川大雙紙』, date unknown), a booklet on the proper code of conduct for the samurai, it was a common practice to stir rice into the miso soup bowl and eaten together since reheating cold brown rice was not possible. This was an acceptable meal and even served to distinguished guests.
By the Muromachi period (1336-1573), the commoners started to adopt the habit of drinking miso soup and miso production boomed thanks to government incentives of increasing soybean and millet yields. Farmers prized their homemade miso and would stock up on 2-3 years worth of miso, which was no doubt a lifesaver during cyclical famine and poor harvests.
What’s more, miso was cherished as a party food! The Samurai class hosted miso soup parties called Shiruko (汁講). At these parties, guests would bring cooked rice and the host would prepare a big pot of miso soup with seasonal ingredients, which he would distribute to the guests. While these gatherings were nothing lavish, there was sake drinking, singing, dancing, networking, and camaraderie centered around miso.
Miso Soup to The Battlefields
During the warring Sengoku era (1467 – 1615), miso was an essential provision for the samurai on the battlefields. The brave soldiers carried portable miso soup around their waist, called Imogara nawa (芋がら縄). It was a belt made of dried taro stems simmered in miso, which they would either chew off and consume as is, or cut off a section and pour boiling water for instant soup. Round up and dried miso balls called Miso dama (味噌玉) was another portable miso soup savored at the battlefields. The boost of protein and the warm soup was no doubt an invaluable life-sustaining ration.
In fact, the legendary samurai warlords Takeda Shingen, Date Masamune, and Oda Nobunaga, among many others actively promoted their region’s miso production as they believed miso was the ultimate war provision and key to victory. Even to this day, their hometown region are known for their miso (Shinshu miso, Sendai miso, and Hatcho miso respectively).
Miso During the Edo Era
With the population growth of Edo (now Tokyo) reaching half a million in its peak of the Edo era (1603-1867), the demand for miso outgrew the local supply. Miso produced from far away regions such as present-day Aichi and Miyagi prefectures were brought to the city by land and boat, diversifying the variety and availability of miso. Miso appeared in comedic sketches, poetry, and even ukiyoe (woodblock printing).
Miso was ingrained in the everyday lives of the Edokko (江戸っ子, nickname for the people of Edo), and its health and nutritious benefits were well known. There are many phrases and wordplays pertaining to miso, such as 「味噌の医者殺し」(miso is a doctor killer) and「医者に金を払うよりも、みそ屋に払え」(instead of paying the doctor, pay the miso shop), the Japanese version to “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
Written records such as the “Honcho Shokkan” (『本朝食鑑』, “Mirror of Food in Our Country,” 1695) mentions miso as “daily sustenance,” “eradicates poison” and “improves one’s blood circulation.” Miso was widely used in cooking and miso soup was breakfast food for the Edokko (although interestingly, in the greater Kyoto/Osaka area, miso soup was an occasional food and hot green tea was the preferred morning cup).
Miso soup was also popular among the upper elites, including Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogunate of the Edo era (who united the warring feudal lands for the 400 year peace). While the average life expectancy was 37-38 years old during the Edo era, Tokugawa lived to 75 years old and had two wives, several concubines, and fathered 16 children.
His strength and vitality are supposedly due to daily consumption of miso soup containing 5 leafy vegetables and 3 root vegetables. The tradition of drinking a hearty vegetable miso soup at each meal continued through the following generations of the Tokugawa leadership, which continued for 15 generations. Who knew miso was the backbone of the Edo Shogunate?
Edo Miso: Fresh, Quick, and Popular
The miso made during this time greatly differs from the miso available today. Edo miso (江戸味噌) was made by equal parts soybeans and rice koji, and was on the sweeter side (more koji = sweeter). It was low in salt (less than 10%), with a dark reddish-brown, and contained 3 times more rice koji than other varieties of miso, no doubt a luxurious treat.
Most strikingly, this miso was fresh. The fermentation lasted between 14-20 days and had an extremely short expiration date of just 10 days during the hot summer months. While this accelerated miso was not made for long-term storage, it met the growing demands for miso, so the Edokko would frequent their local miso shops instead of making it themselves. Despite the short fermentation, Edo miso was in no way inferior to the other varieties.
The poet Matsuo Basho eternalized natto miso soup, a popular way of drinking miso soup in the haiku 『納豆きる音しばしまて鉢叩 』”Hold for a moment/the sound of chopping natto/bowl beating” (1690).
Unfortunately, Edo miso started to experience a decline in market share due to several reasons. One was the flood of Sendai miso during the early Meiji era (1868-1912), which was made with less rice koji (and thus cheaper to produce) and higher in salt (suited for long-term storage and shipping).
The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake further reduced the number of miso producers, when 70% of the city burned to the ground. Finally, the rationing of rice during the Pacific War made the rice-heavy Edo miso a nonessential indulgence, and its production was banned by the military government. While some miso purveyors in Tokyo have recreated Edo miso, it has mostly disappeared from the mainstream miso realm.
Miso in the Modern Day
Although the history of miso spans over 1,300 years, its production in Japan has greatly decreased by 40% over the last 50 years. To compare, the annual consumption of miso per household in 1970 was 15kg, whereas just 7.2kg in 2008.
Urbanization, economic growth, the westernization of the Japanese diet, and the entry of more women in the workplace prioritized convenience over laborious home-cooked meals. Yet interestingly, miso is going through a new phase, both within Japan and abroad.
During the postwar era, many food companies scrambled to rebuild the devastated food system to feed the hungry population. One was Marukome Miso, which developed accelerated miso that was affordable, readily available, and held wide appeal to the diverse taste palates of the Japanese. Marukome mechanized and revolutionized the miso production system, which previously relied on a small-batch and traditional method mostly unchanged for nearly 1,000 years.
Miso with Dashi Included
Perhaps the most innovative miso in recent years is miso with dashi included (だし入り味噌). With this convenient variety, home cooks can easily make flavorful miso soup by skipping the task of preparing dashi from scratch. First sold by Marukome in 1982, this genius product went through a year of testing to successfully mix kombu and katsuobushi dashi into miso without killing off the probiotics. “Ryotei no Aji” (料亭の味) catapulted Marukome’s sales to become the biggest names in the miso industry, and miso with dashi remains their top seller to this day.
Marukome’s success followed liquid miso (液味噌), dashi added miso in squeezable plastic bottles. This product was born from the consumer feedback that miso was difficult to dissolve in hot water and would result in clumps in their soup. Thus launched the liquid miso version of Ryotei no Aji, which can be directly poured into a pot or bowl of hot water and stirred for almost instant miso soup.
Countless other miso companies have produced new types of miso such as powdered, freeze dried, low-sodium and calcium included miso. Local miso can be found from the northern Hokkaido down to the southern Okinawan islands, where you can find a diverse array of miso using different ingredients and methods.
Thus, miso continues to evolve and adapt to the changing times to suit the needs and demands of the consumers.
Miso Beyond Japanese Cuisine
The domestic production and consumption of miso might be dwindling, but miso exports has increased by tenfold from 1977 to 2012, where 10,083 tons of miso are shipped around the world. Major miso companies have also set up factories outside of Japan to reduce shipping costs while selling miso unparalleled to the quality sold in Japan.
Major miso companies such as Marukome and Nami’s favorite Hikari Miso have played an instrumental role in expanding the accessibility of miso outside of Japan. The recognition of Washoku (Japanese cuisine) as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2013 further boosted miso to the global stage. These various efforts have transitioned miso from the humble ingredient into a mainstream product found in supermarkets and kitchens across the world.
Miso has been embraced by the healthy food phase in the western hemisphere and the macrobiotic community, further boosting its recognition outside of Japanese cuisine. But this did not leave small artisanal miso producers in the dust, as they were also able to take advantage of miso’s popularity and sell their low-tech high-quality product.
Many non-Japanese chefs and restaurants are also embracing the versatility and flavor potential of miso. The legendary French patisserie Pierre Hermé has experimented using miso in his famous macarons, releasing the white miso and chocolate macaron in 2015, followed by the white miso and lemon macaron in 2017. The chef and founder of the Momofuku restaurant empire David Chang slathers a compound butter with miso to many of his dishes, such as fish and chicken, roasted carrots and asparagus, and baked potatoes.
And of course, you’d find non-Japanese food companies joining the bandwagon by offering miso made with different grains and beans that cater to the diverse demand of customers (even Trader Joe’s has their own line of miso!) If you search online for miso recipes, you’ll find it used in many non-traditional recipes such as in glazes, marinades, salad dressings, and baked goods. The Edokko would surely be surprised that their beloved miso has jumped over land and sea to be eaten around the globe.
More Good Reads on Japanese Food History:
- Yoshoku: The Japanese Adaptation of Western Cuisine
- The Cultural Significance of Japanese Rice
- Chuka Ryori: Japanese Adaptation of Chinese Cuisine
- Ekiben: Japanese Railway Bento