Curse You, Postal System…..

I ordered a bento box from Japan a couple of weeks ago, and I got home today to find the UPS truck in the driveway. I  got out of the car, opened the garage, and put the groceries down.  The truck had gone.  I went to the mailbox.

In the mailbox was a paper slip telling me that they missed me and I had to sign for the package at the district post office.

I know for a fact the bloody UPS woman saw me get out of my car and open the garage.  I waved at her.

What the devil?

The Miso Soup Post

Miso hungry.... okay I'm done now.

Right, then.  Miso soup is made from dashi stock and miso paste.  Miso paste is made from fermented rice, barley, soy beans, and salt.  Rather like yogurt, it is apparently teeming with beneficial microbes, and in consequence is much beloved of the probiotics crowd.  You can buy it at any Asian grocery, and it comes in three varieties: white (shiro), red (aka), and mixed (awase).  I have been using white miso, which is milder than red, and also easier to get.

The lovely thing about miso soup is that you can put in it whatever you please.  The list below is what I put in my standard breakfast miso, but feel free to experiment.  The food ninjas will not come for you.  I promise.  If they do, let me know and I’ll have a word with them.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon white miso
  • 2 cups dashi stock
  • Bunapi mushrooms
  • Shiitake mushrooms, sliced
  • Extra-firm tofu
  • Spring onion, sliced
  • Mung bean sprouts
  • Udon noodles, prepared according to package (Optional.  I don’t actually put these in unless I’ve made this for dinner, which has happened all of once, as my father despises miso)

Prep time: max 10 minutes

First you’re going to prepare the miso.  If you just spoon it in right out of the jar, you’ll wind up with unpleasant globs throughout your soup.  That is not what we want.  Instead, mix the miso with a couple of tablespoons of water until it’s thin and runny but still opaque.  Set this aside for now.

Cook the mushrooms and tofu in the dashi stock.  Once they’re cooked to your taste and the water is boiling, add the spring onions.  Remove the pot from the heat and add the miso.  Stir it a little bit to disperse, and then serve immediately, over your noodles if you included those.  If the soup is left to sit, the miso will cook and all of those wonderful probiotic properties will be destroyed (tragedy, no?).  More importantly, it will go grainy and taste weird.

Add the mung bean sprouts at the table.  They also get weird if left in the hot soup too long before eating.

Stop reading this.  Now.  Go make yourself some soup.

But first….

Dashi stock.  This clear broth is ubiquitous in Japanese cooking, and is my first order of recipe business.  I advise anyone who intends to be cooking a lot of this kind of thing to keep a quart or so of it around at all times.  You never know where it will turn up.

Yeah, pretty bizarre. I know.

Konbu

Ingredients:

  • A 6″ square piece of Konbu
  • A generous handful of Katsuobushi
  • 6 cups of water

Toss the konbu and the water into a pot and allow the seaweed to soak for at least 20 minutes.  It will take in water and become something now recognizable as a vegetable.  When it has thoroughly reconstituted, turn the stove on and bring everything to a boil.

Fish the konbu out of the pot and reserve it for later.  It’s good in miso soup or as part of a stir fry; once my mother bagged a piece while I wasn’t looking and just ate it on its own, which she regretted immediately.

Fish shavings. Yum.

Katsuobushi

Remove the pot from the heat and drop the handful of katsuobushi right into the pale green liquid the konbu has left behind.  There will be a strong smell of fish: don’t worry, it dissipates quickly.  Immediately strain the katsuobushi out of the broth and squeeze all of the liquid out of it.  Discard.

If you don’t want to use the fish, vegan konbu dashi is easily made simply by omitting all of the fish steps.

This keeps well in the fridge for a couple of days, although it does lose pungency over time.

Huzzah.  Now we can talk about miso.

The Saga Begins

It all started with the miso soup.

It was spring break.  I was bored of my mother’s latest Western-style vegan meals.

My mother is a complete nutrition geek, and every so often my father and I find a sudden, apparently random change in diet inflicted on us. This has, in the past, included macrobiotics, which didn’t last; juicing everything in sight, which lasted longer than any of us would care to admit; locally farmed grass-fed meat and dairy, which was delicious; no wheat products, which was torture; and many similar fads.  Along with this comes endless pseudo-scientific chatter about food, food, and nothing but food.  After a few months, invariably she finds that new research has emerged and pronounces us in mortal error, while my father and I think to ourselves “Who’s we, white man?”

I was not opposed to veganism as such, but it was a little disheartening that first Saturday to come home from an exhausting day of paintballing to see raw broccoli salad and beans on the table.  Sunday and Monday brought forth equally disappointing cuisine, and by Tuesday I had a raging desire for Japanese food, no money (paintball had taken care of that), and a determination to do something about all this foolishness.

My mother was waving a cookbook filled with anemic mock-Indian recipes beneath my nose, imploring me to choose one and betake myself to the grocery store posthaste.  I selected one at random, as an excuse to be dismissed, and bolted for the silver Honda mini-van that is my soccer-mom-ish chariot.

I didn’t go to the Giant.

About three miles from my house is El Grande Supermercado, which, despite its name, is the best Asian grocery store within a hungry-college-student-in-a-rush travel radius.  If I had really been in quest of Indian food, I would have gone another couple of miles to the Middle Eastern neighbourhoods, where you can find Lebanese, Saudi, Pakistani, Indian, and Iranian stores all crammed in next to each other with no concern for Arab League politics or the nuclear question.  I shall address all of these marvelous places in due time.

I wasn’t really in quest of Indian food.  A brief foray into the hot sauce aisle and I found the sambal oelek my mother required.  Then I was free.

I knew very little of Japanese cooking, but I was sure miso soup was well within my abilities, and, moreover, I knew what was in it.  Miso and tofu were easily found; we already had spring onions and mushrooms at home.

I pulled up short at konbu and katsuobushi.  I at least knew that konbu was some kind of kelp, and thus to be found in the sea vegetable aisle along with all the sushi nori and things like that.  I had no idea what it looked like.  Katsuobushi was nothing but a mysterious foreign word.

I don’t read Japanese.

A fellow customer, amused at the confused, struggling white girl staring helplessly at the seaweed, came to my rescue.  Katsuobushi proved to come in a plastic bag and resemble nothing so much as wood shavings from a plane.  Apparently it’s tuna, dried whole and then shaved off in flakes.

I grabbed a red bean mochi from the refrigerator section and resigned myself to being stared at by the checkout person.  I have found since that if you’re a white person buying white person stuff, you attract no attention at all.  A white person with a cart full of East Asian groceries is in for surprised faces and silent diagnoses of ‘hopeless otaku’ from every side.  I don’t mind one bit.

When I got home my mother felt the need to inform me at length that a) tuna isn’t vegan and b) miso has a lot of sodium.  I stuck out my tongue, because secretly I’m a twelve-year-old boy, and ten minutes later was cheerfully slurping down a vast bowl of miso soup.

There was no turning back.