Over the last couple of years I’ve been exploring Asian flavors and recipes in my cooking. Soy is the essence of what my brain associates with Asian eating, [See also my thrilling post on La Choy Chow Mein], but I have slowly introduced (new-to-me) flavors into my Asian pantry which now contains oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, rice wine vinegar, and sesame oil, all of which I use on a regular basis.
I went through a phase where I was going to teach myself to make Pad Thai, and that required the purchase of fish sauce, which is fermented fish and salt. It smells like what rotting fish would smell like if rotting fish smelled kind of (but not quite) pleasant. It’s a strong flavor used a lot in the Thai food I make. At first I only used a couple of drops per dish, but now I’m a bit more liberal. My Pad Thai still tastes like an American from Cincinnati is trying to make Thai food, but it’s not terrible.
I occasionally use black bean paste, usually in pork dishes, which is fermented, salted black beans. In fact, the Asian market at my farmer’s market is loaded with all kinds of fermented products, none of which I knew a thing about until I started trying to up my stir fry game.
The best part about buying such unfamiliar products is asking the store owner for help. The guy at the Saigon Market (located in Findlay Market) could talk for 20 minutes about the appropriate noodle for the appropriate dish. When I walk in with a recipe that tells me to buy some fermented potion I have questions. Here’s the important one: [Me holding up a fermented product so he can see it…]”So, how long will this last once I open it?” Every single time he just shrugs his shoulders and tells me it’s already as spoiled as it can get. This is both comforting (for food value) and frightening (for food safety).
Miso is my latest never-can-spoil fermented flavor profile. It’s a cousin of soy sauce in that both feature fermented soy beans. Soy sauce (regular soy sauce) is soybeans, wheat, salt, and water. Miso is soybeans, salt, and a fungus (koji). Miso comes as a thick paste that looks like smooth peanut butter, but tastes somewhat like extremely distilled soy. From the get-go, my American brain is fighting to process what I’m about to eat: Peanut butter or soy. Like soy sauce, miso is a umami flavor which is the fifth flavor (the other four are sweet, sour, salty, or bitter). People often describe the taste as meaty or brothy. And, I would add, pleasing…but strong. I couldn’t imagine eating it straight.
Miso paste is meant to be mixed with other ingredients to make sauces, or soups, or, in non-traditional-Asian food, in salad dressings and marinades for fusion cooking.
I used miso in two recipes. The first was a part of a dressing for a rice and tofu salad (yes tofu, I was going to town on spreading my culinary wings in the kitchen this past weekend.). The second was for a marinade for salmon and mushrooms cooked in a packet. Basically the recipe is a piece of salmon cut into cubes with sliced shitake mushrooms, green onions and a sauce made of 1 Tbs miso, 2 Tbs soy, and 1 Tbs water (or sake). Put all that in a tightly sealed foil packet and bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes. This makes one serving.
It was delicious, but a little salty for my tastes. 3/4 of the sauce is essentially salt so, I knew what I was getting, but the miso added a richness soy alone wouldn’t have. I do plan on trying to find more recipes with miso, miso soup for example seems like something extremely easy to make. But the good news, if I forget about my bag of miso, even for a long time, it will still treat me like an old friend.