The myriad uses of Spice Mountain’s miso
If you wanted proof of British foodies’ willingness to embrace food from around the world, then the popularity of miso would be a pretty good indicator. This traditional Japanese paste made from fermented soy beans plus either rice or barley is, on the face of it, not the most attractive of foods. But it has a firm—and growing—fan base, as an increasing number of people become aware that its culinary uses go far beyond soup.
“There are three basic types of miso: white, yellow and red. The one we have here is a red miso made with aged barley, which is called mugi miso in Japan,” says Lucia from Spice Mountain. “It is typically salty but with more depth, and it is known for having that savoury umami flavour which we hear a lot about these days.”
The Japanese use it for much more than miso soup. “They use it in stews to give them an extra layer of flavour, or as an ingredient in dressings for vegetables, fish or meat. “One way I like to use it is as a marinade for tofu,” says Lucia. Slather on the paste as it comes, or make a simple marinade using sake and mirin, for a more authentic Japanese flavour. “A lot of people add ginger, too, as the two flavours go very well together.”
While miso is very rich in umami, it also has sweet characteristics, making it very versatile. The flavours and aroma of the finished paste depend on several factors: ingredients, temperature and duration of fermentation, salt content and the variety of koji used, which is the culture used in the fermentation process. So while the core flavours are always be present, the maker has the latitude to create subtle changes in texture and flavour.
Justin Saunders, head chef at Borough Plates, is presently showcasing its versatility in some very interesting ways. “From a chef’s point of view, I like it because it is very rich, very buttery. You can use it as a seasoning, as well as a main ingredient. But be careful—if overused, it can get too salty very quickly.”
At the moment it is on the menu in two dishes, “both of which are proving especially popular”. Perhaps the more unusual of the two is a chocolate sphere filled with hazelnut mousse, served with a blood orange jelly and miso caramel. “People know salted caramel, but we are using miso to add the salty/umami flavour. It is lovely, velvety and rich, with savoury notes.”
Hazelnuts and crispy shallots
The other is pan-seared cabbage braised in a broth made using miso paste, served with a red chilli paste and mayonnaise, caramelised hazelnuts and crispy shallots. “It’s a really nice and elegant dish. Cabbage is a vegetable we usually boil or shred, but as with so many ingredients we take for granted, it has so much more to offer,” says Justin. “It can be naturally quite sweet, which is accentuated by the charring which caramelises the surface. The savoury notes that the miso broth brings balances that out beautifully.”
In fact, the cabbage has been so popular that it has been on this ever-revolving menu for a couple of weeks now. People keep coming back for it—something that the chef has found very gratifying. “With so much wonderful produce at the Market, we try our hardest to find ways to make the best of it each week,” Justin says with real enthusiasm. “I’m really happy it’s so popular, because it shows people that with a bit of imagination, there are really delicious ways to treat every day veg.”