Have you ever woken up thinking, “I’m going to make some miso today…”? Of course not, and do you know why…? Because in Japan, you can buy miso anywhere, in any variety, and for a very reasonable cost! However, there is a certain sense of great accomplishment if you can make your very own, hand-made, year supply of miso!
I took a journey to the country side of Minami Shimabara to learn from a 79-year-old Japanese Obachan (aunt). Together, we went through this long, yet suprisingly easy process of making miso and I would like to share my experience with you… From barley and soy beans to that delicious salty Japanese condiment that has won the world over, here we go:
First, we woke up at about 5:30am to start boiling the soy beans (大豆daizu). Yes, 5:30 in the morning! I do not make a habit of waking up that early, especially for boiling beans, but I made an exception for Obachan (to be honest, she had the mouth of a sailor and could probably beat me up, so I didn’t want to make her angry).
The daizu were soaked in water over night until they swell almost double in size! In the morning, we started boiling them. It took roughly 3 hours and then simmered for another hour until soft. In the end, they should be able to be smooshed easily between two fingers (just two… 3 would be cheating and will result in less tasty miso… maybe; I didn’t argue).
While the daizu were in their hot water bath (I was a little jealous), it was time to prepare the barely for fermentation. For those who don’t know, barely is simply called mugi (麦) in Japanese. You often see it mixed in rice to make mugi-gohan (麦ごはん) or roasted and used for barley tea (麦茶mugi-cha). I am unsure whether the barley we used was pearl or hulled, but by its hardness, I think it was hulled. (I am barely a barley expert so if I am incorrect, pardon me.)
First, we soaked the mugi in tap water for about two hours. Then, we drained it and put it into pans called mushiki (蒸し器). They have small holes in the bottom to allow steam to pass through. The mushiki were lined with mushi-nuno (蒸し布), similar to cheese cloth. Obachan told me that using the cloth made it easier to dump out the mugi after it steamed. However, she forgot (she told me I forgot, but it was really her) to put cloth in one of the mushiki… and I didn’t really notice any difference when dumping out the mugi. Actually, with the cloth, it was oddly enough less easy. I did not tell her this.
All three pots were stacked onto a firewood stove (薪釜maki-gama) and began steamming. Obachan said that when steam rose from the top pot, the bottom pot was finished. I was not sure if this was an exact science, so I asked her about how long it would take. Her answer was, “It depends on how well you keep the fire burning.” Ok…..
Here’s the thing… she was right… You must keep the fire raging, otherwise steam will NOT come out of the top mushiki! For my fire-keeping skills, it took roughly 35-40 minutes… After we removed the bottom pan, the middle and top pots took an additional 10 minutes each. That was decided by Obachan intuition.
When the mugi was finished steaming, we dumped it into big pans and stirred it with shamoji (しゃもじ), a wooden spoon usually used to scoop cooked rice. Ok, Ok.. I used the shamoji… Obachan used her hands! I tried my hands… but it was like really HOT! When the mugi was cooled enough to touch without causing pain (about 35-40°C), we added the koji-culture (麹菌kouji-kin). If you add the culture when it is still hot, the bacteria will die. You must mix it very well using your hands attempting to coat each and every grain!
In order for the bacteria do it’s magic, we prepared the mugi to rest. And when I say rest, I mean a complete futon set! First, we set up modern day beer crates as a low table in a small work shed. On top of the crates, we put down an electric carpet set on high heat.
Then we lined 2,000-year-old wood boxes* called koji-buta (麹蓋) with fusuma-gami (ふすま紙), paper used in making Japanese sliding doors. We spread the mugi inside the boxes and put them on top of the beer crates creating a good yin-yang balance. We covered the mugi with fusuma-gami and started layering blankets.. and electric heating blankets… then a silver insulation mat… then a green tarp…. and finally one last silver insulation mat. Once the mugi were all snuggled into bed, we turned on the heating blankets and left them in peace.
*The boxes were not really 2,000 years old… they looked very old… However, while we were putting the mugi in them, Obachan told me that the man who made them had died recently. The immediate word out of my mouth was SUGOI!… probably not the correct term for the situation, but I didn’t really know what to say…
Back to the daizu… they were easily squashed between two fingers and ready to be pulverized. Little by little, we poured them into a large food processor and flipped the switch. By the looks of the food processor, it had been in the family for generations. I was a little worried about the rust around the edges, but Obachan said it added flavor. We did not grind the daizu into a perfect paste. It was a paste with a rich texture of whole, half and fine-chopped daizu. Technically, we could have used our hands, but that would have taken forever. Then we put the mash into supermarket plastic bags… again I was worried about this… but again, I was told, “added flavor!”
We put all the bags of daizu in the refrigerator, washed all the pans, bowls, and utinsils used and that was the end of day one! Obachan and I celebrated with a 6-pack of beer. She had four and I had two.
We started a little later today (11am)… a little extra sleep for me and a little extra time for the mugi to ferment. Obachan woke up around 5am just to show off, I’m sure.
We uncovered the mugi and my first reaction was, “I’m going to eat this?! Gross!” My next reaction was, “Wow, it smells like beer…!” And Obachan‘s reaction was, “Would you like a beer?” I said it was a little too early for beer and she said, “why?” I told her I didn’t know.. and I enjoyed a mid-moring beer while she washed out the giant mixing bowl.
Ok, back to the mugi and mold! The mugi grains were cocooned in a white mold called koji (麹). This is what gives miso its classic umami (旨味) taste. Umami is a Japanese term that is now used all over the world and roughly means “rich flavor.” Koji plays a very important role in Japanese cuisine.. for more information, do a google search. I asked Obachan about the health benefits of koji and miso. Her response, “I have eaten it everyday and I am not dead.” Fair answer.
At last, we enter the final stage of this process… Mixing! In a large metal pan, we put 10 heaping isshou-masu (一升枡) fulls of the mugi-koji. A masu ( 枡) is a wooden box traditionally used to measure rice or from which to drink Japanese sake (日本酒nihon-shu). Isshou (一升) refers to its size. There are 6 sizes of masu and isshou is the largest holding about 1.8 liters. Drinking Japanese sake from an isshou-masu is not recommended. With our hands, we broke up all clumps of mugi into individual grains. My hands smelled like beer for the rest of the day.
To the 10 masu of koji, we added one heaping masu of salt. Adding salt keeps the mixture from turning into alcohol. We used regular sea salt, a brand that can be found at any supermarket in Japan. By hand, we mixed the mugi-koji and salt until the salt was evenly dispersed. We then dumped in one plastic bag of daizu mash and started hand churning. This was not easy. In fact, it was quite a workout! When Obachan makes miso alone, she mixes only 5 masu at a time. I beat her at sometime! Yes! Finally I felt worthy (except I had muscle pain in my arms, neck, back, and chest for a few days)!
After the mugi-koji and daizu were completely and perfectly incorporated into each other, we scooped the mixture into a big bucket (樽taru) lined with a large, clear plastic bag. Each time we put in a layer, we pressed it down to get rid of air pockets.
When the taru was full, we folded the plastic bag over the top of the miso and set a wooden lid (押し蓋oshi-buta) on top. We put some very heavy weights (重石omoshi) on it that help keep the fermentation process balance throughout the taru. One was a nice white one.. and the other looked like it had been some device from a world war. I had reservations about touching it, but Obachan told me to hurry up. Without thinking, I picked up the 20kg hunk of metal and placed it on top.
That was the end of the two-day process. Obachan told me the miso would be ready in about 10 days. We cleaned all the pans and utensils, said Otsukaresama (a term meaning “good work today”) and she went inside to take a nap. Despite waking up at about 10:30am, I also took a nap.