Miso
The Times, 2006

It looks like sludge but it’s a superfood in mufti. The Samurai swore by it and the first Shogun fed it to his castle builders. Today, a majority of Japanese households still swig down miso soup at breakfast. Now there’s an alternative to muesli.

Miso is a thick fermented paste made primarily from soya beans and it’s indispensable to Japanese cuisine. It turns up in marinades, sauces and stews, adds piquancy to charcoal grilled vegetables and there’s even miso covered corn on the cob.

References to ‘hisio’, an older term for miso, go back at least as far as the 6th century in Japan, and may derive from a much earlier Chinese version brought over by Buddhist monks. Initially a luxury food for noblemen, used to pay the wages of high-ranking officers, miso gradually became an everyday household item.

In about 1960, miso traveled to the West as an ingredient for the macrobiotic kitchen. It’s now common in fusion food, and you can find it on the organic shelves of some supermarkets and most health food shops. It’s a rapidly acquired taste. The slightly heady aroma and intense sweet-sour taste is rather like an oriental marmite.

Coming from a society that views food as medicine, it’s not surprising that miso really is good for you. It’s an excellent source of digestive enzymes, friendly bacteria, all the essential amino acids, with a good measure of vitamins and minerals thrown in. It’s been associated with reduced risks of breast cancer, longevity, anti ageing properties and alkalinizing the blood.

Most intriguing of all, studies of St Francis Hospital, literally in the shadow of the Nagasaki blast, ascribed the total lack of signs of radiation sickness in patients and staff to their regular intake of miso. It was on this evidence that tons of the stuff were shipped to Chernobyl after the 1986 disaster.

Much of its intensity comes from the fermentation process rather than salt. Soya beans are combined with water, sea salt and a mould culture called ‘koji’, along with a grain such as rice or barley, in six ton cedar vats (ideally – stainless steel ones are often used these days), where it is left to age.

The different added grain and the length of the aging process produce a range of types, from ivory to red to cocoa brown, with the taste varying from mild and slightly sweet to full bodied and pungent. Generally speaking, the lighter the colour the sweeter the taste.

White miso is aged only 1 to 2 months. It’s ideal in sauces or marinades for vegetables and fish, or in a salad dressing. Darker, older misos like that made from barley, have deeper tones and are great for stews and meaty sauces. Pride of place among misos is given to the rich ‘Hatcho miso’, matured over 3 winters, the very best miso coming from the center of the cask and customarily presented to the emperor.

There are two main points to remember when cooking with miso. Don’t use too much, as it can easily overpower a dish. Secondly, don’t boil it as this destroys the probiotics.

To make miso soup you need ‘dashi’, Japanese stock. Add 4-5 strips of pre-soaked and chopped ‘wakame’, dried seaweed, to a good sized pan of water and simmer for twenty minutes. Enhance the soup with any vegetables you have to hand, plus tiny cubes of tofu. Off the heat stir through just 1-2 heaped teaspoons of miso, for a light and subtle taste.

Sit back, feel humble and think of the good it’s doing to your yin and yang – if you want to. But then it’s hardly necessary when something tastes this good.


Butter

By the time I was 7 I knew that butter (like bread) could blow you up like a Michelin man before you could say hollandaise. The routine in my family was to abstain for as long as we could hold out, weeks sometimes, and then on some particularly miserable morning to throw out our good intentions and descend into an orgy of crusty white bread lavished with inches of butter. A sandwich was good too, with lightly salted tomato slices. Best of all was bread and butter topped with homemade blackcurrant jam, a gold and indigo feast.

Once I got to college, unsalted butter was the obvious way to go, since it was probably foreign, possibly French and definitely more sophisticated. It went with reading Baudelaire, wearing black and consuming as much cheap red wine as was humanly possible. I think I survived a whole term on cream crackers, brie and butter.

Nowadays, I like the salt in salted butter, particularly as a contrast with something sweet like honey. And I don’t care if it does have 30 milligrams of cholesterol in one tablespoon. That just makes it even more wickedly pleasurable. And I tell myself it is a natural product. Unless you get the spreadable varieties with their smattering of e numbers, it’s safe to say it is what it says on the wrapper and nothing tastes near as sumptuous.

Butter is sublime but everyday. It’s essential for both a classic French sauce and hot buttered crumpets on a wet afternoon. It’s a luxury item that’s affordable. Perhaps that’s why Krishna’s escapades to get his deep blue hands on a pat of butter are so popular in India. Here is a god’s chosen food that is also accessible to us – unlike manna which they don’t happen to stock in my local supermarket.

It was probably by divine happenstance that we first came up with butter, because it’s simple to make. The oldest known way was to half fill a goat skin with milk, inflate it with air and seal it, suspend the skin from a tripod made with sticks and swing it back and forth. What’s happening here is that the fat globule membranes are agitated and damaged, allowing them to come together and separate from the remaining buttermilk. Butter grains float up, which can then be skimmed off and kneaded together.

On the continent this is generally done using cream collected over several days so that it’s partly fermented. Such ‘cultured’ butter has a fuller flavour and ‘buttery’ taste which grows as it ages in cold storage. In the UK as in the States we prefer ‘sweet cream’ butter, made from pasteurized fresh cream to which bacterial cultures and lactic acid are incorporated. It has a cleaner more creamy taste.

But there are many other more bizarre variations.Yak butter is used in Tibet, and butter tea is popular throughout the Himalayas, made with rancid Yak butter and salt. Smen is a Moroccan clarified butter, spiced with cinnamon, herbs or other spices, buried and aged. This type of process was common throughout Scandinavia, Scotland and Ireland in days gone by. The Irish preserved their butter (and protected it from thieves) by heavily flavouring it with garlic and then packing it into firkins which were drowned in peat bogs. Such ‘bog butter’ is still a common archeological find.

Despite the invention of margarine in 1869, butter has stayed with us, its real rival in cooking being the olive oil favoured by southern Europeans. But some things need butter to bring out them out. Eggs or sautéed potatoes fried in oil just don’t work; they taste dull and greasy; they need the magic touch of butter. Similarly, parboiled or steamed vegetables are transformed when calmly sautéed over a low heat for ten or fifteen minutes. This simple process brings depth and subtlety even to something as basic as leek and potato soup.

The main point when frying with butter is not to burn it – patience is essential. Butter is an emulsification of milk solids, water and butterfat that will separate when heated. To maintain the emulsification a very little water can be whisked together with some chunks of butter, over a moderate heat. This beurre monte is used for finishing blanched vegetables, basting meats or poaching lobster. (Not to be confused with monter au beurre where cold butter is whisked into a sauce to add richness and gloss.)

In contrast, clarified butter is where the buttery components are allowed to separate. Cooked for just long enough the milk solids at the bottom turn golden brown and release a rich and slightly nutty taste into the yellow, clarified butter, which can then be poured off through a sieve for use. If further cooked to remove all traces of water this becomes Indian ghee.

The point of clarified butter and ghee is that it has a high smoke point so it’s less likely to burn. You can always tell an Indian restaurant where ghee is used rather than vegetable oil, because the long slow cooking brings a sensuous richness to each dish, highlighting and harmonizing the component ingredients to make a complex and authentic whole.

Best of all buttery inventions must be the classic French sauces like the roux, hollandaise or béarnaise, the latter two being essentially a mayonnaise made with melted butter rather than oil. Jane Grigson has a fantastic recipe I have drooled over but never made, called ‘Eggs and Sweet corn Henri IV’, where sweet corn, poached eggs, foie gras and sauce béarnaise are combined in pastry cases.Just as good and far better known is the classic concoction of hollandaise, spinach and egg.

Such sublime concoctions may seem dated, but it’s time for a butter revival. Butter has had bad press and not just in the wake of the modern culinary devotion to all things Mediterranean. It was once thought it could give you leprosy. Nowadays they tell us it’s bad for the cholesterol levels. But look at the Russians, they have a whole week dedicated to it. During Butter Week, just before the Lenten fast, they traditionally gorge themselves on honey, caviar, blinis, fresh cream, and of course butter. Thank god for glasnost I say.


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