First, buy some hatcho miso
. It is very light in colour, quite golden. If it is brown, it won’t produce the same effect. In Ottawa we can buy a miso which is almost white and another a gold colour; then there are darker ones. The white miso is too weak. The brown miso is too strong. Look for the pale gold. When you find it, transfer it to a plastic container. It needs to be refrigerated. But taste it first. It is strong and salty, but if you provide the right base for it, it can be delicious. Taste it first because you need to know its taste to make the base
Traditionally, miso shiru (miso soup) is made with a fish stock which provides a light but rich base for the other ingredients. You can make it without fish stock, but you have to play with it to achieve that richness. We use kombucha (powdered kombu mixed with macha or green tea powder) to accomplish that. Kombucha is probably available in different forms, though here we are able to buy only one brand of it. See if you can find that first and try it. If it is of good quality, you should be able to mix it with very hot water to make a broth that could stand by itself - somewhat sweet, very savoury. We have used this for retreatants in the past, served in a small cup with some tiny cubes of silken tofu and finely cut green onions strewn on the surface. If it is bitter or harsh, it won’t do.
If you can’t find that, you could experiment with a stock made by boiling strips of dried kombu for several hours which is then strained. It is more difficult to get a rich broth from this than from kombucha, at least with the quality of kombu that is available in Ottawa. You may have better results, but I have found it too weak. Occasionally, I have found a Japanese form of kombu which is probably produced for festive ocaisions. It is cut and tied like small bow ties and I thought when I tried using it for stock “Oh, this is it, this is the flavour I have been looking for.” But then it all but disappeared from the shelves and I have only rarely seen it since. Add to the stock some tea made from a good quality green tea (loose leaf, please).
Wash and then soak some dried shitake mushrooms in water for several hours until the caps become silky to the touch. The stems usually do not reconstitute well, so we cut them off (with scissors). Dried Japanese shitake are quite expensive, so you may want to use dried Chinese black mushrooms and these work well, providing you get good quality mushrooms. If you get good mushrooms, you can add the soaking liquor to enrich the stock. If you get cheap mushrooms, the soaking water overpowers the other flavours of the soup. Good Chinese mushrooms have rounded caps, often have clearly defined lines on the caps and have pleasing colours. Cheap Chinese mushrooms are flat, dull brown, look dusty and don’t taste too good.
After the mushrooms are soaked, you will need to rinse them again, as bits of grit get under the curve of the cap and you won’t notice them until they are in your mouth. Feel around the rim of the cap as you rinse them. If they are bite-sized and look appetising, cut the stems off and use them whole in the soup. If they are large, cut them in half. If they are too large or misshapen, cut them into thin strips. Add these to the stock.
You will need to add finely-cut ginger. Don’t grate it, cut it into thin matchsticks. I grated it once and reprimanded myself for it afterwards. Miso shiru should to be made using the highest possible standards and without cutting any corners and I was making it to be offered to the Sangha (harmonious community of pratitioners). They might not notice the difference, but it affects them. So don’t grate the ginger! For soup for six, I would add a piece perhaps an inch by an inch and a half, slivered.
With whichever seaweed base (kombu or kombucha) you choose to make a stock with, you will need to add other ingredients to create a soup that is quite palatable by itself, very slightly sweet, to which to add the miso. The flavour of the stock should be such that when you add the miso, it blends to produce a very savory soup that is not covered over by the taste of the miso, but instead works with it.
So, now that you have the seaweed stock, ginger and mushrooms cooking, taste it first and then add some shoyu (soy sauce). Use Kikkoman shoyu. Add a little, taste. Add a little more, taste. Remember you are going to add miso to this and miso is salty. Don’t overdo it because you can always add more after the miso goes in. When you add the shoyu, it should make the soup a transparent dark amber, not black.
Now add some mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine). Don’t make it too sweet. It should just take the edge off the shoyu.
Now add some Japanese rice vinegar. Don’t pour it from the bottle into the soup. Pour it into the cap of the bottle next to the soup and add a little, maybe half a teaspoon to begin with and taste. You should not be able to taste the vinegar. It is only there to produce a chemical reaction which highlights the other flavours.
When you taste this, it should be able to stand alone as a broth. I tend to describe flavours as though they were musical notes. A good miso shiru stock has high notes and low notes, mid-range notes and none of them dominate. The stock should be very flavourful, but not particularly strong, as miso has yet to be added. The stock should embrace the miso, the miso the stock, or there will be a discordant note.
Before you add the miso, turn the heat down under the soup. Miso should not be boiled. Put some of the miso paste into a small bowl and dissolve it in a ladle full of hot stock using a whisk. It should become like a completely smooth thick gravy. Add a little at a time to the soup stir and taste. Taste a lot, take your time adding the miso, notice how you narrow the space between the flavour of the miso and the flavour of the stock - it starts to come together and there is a point where if you add any more miso, you will tip the balance. The stock and the miso need to meet without overpowering each other.
Now go and wash the bowl and whisk and tidy up the kitchen for a few minutes because if you taste it any more right now, you will start second-guessing yourself about whether it tastes right or not and might add too much miso. Come back after a few minutes and taste it. See? It’s good.
Just a few more things to add: Some greens like watercress or spinach are good with miso shiru. But cut them into small pieces – you don’t want to have a big wad of green stuff sliding around on your hashi (chopsticks). And don’t put delicate greens like spinach directly into the soup. Add them to the serving bowl and pour the hot miso shiru over them just before serving. And last, but not least, very small cubes of very fresh silken tofu that you bought in Chinatown because it tastes better than tofu you can get anywhere else.
Served with a bowl of rice garnished with gomasio (toasted sesame seeds coarsely ground and mixed with salt), a slice of crunchy smelly takuan (pickled daikon) and some gari (pickled ginger), this a rich, delicious and highly nutritious meal. But please, no carrots, onions or even scallions in the soup, okay? They overpower it.