Made of fermented soybeans, whole grains, water and salt, miso has been a staple food ingredient in Chinese and Japanese cultures for centuries. It’s also a food high in antioxidants, with many anti-carcinogenic properties and tremendous health benefits. But it’s a food that’s often overlooked. Bonnie Chung, founder of London’s Miso Tasty has set out to change that by showing people just what they’ve been missing. With her charming business Miso Tasty, Bonnie is educating people on how to use miso and add flavor into our everyday routines and foods. Coming from the Shincho region of Japan, Bonnie uses snowmelt from the Japanese Alps to give her miso a true taste of authenticity.
We chatted with Bonnie about the history of miso, why she decided to found Miso Tasty and great tips for using the varieties of tasty miso.
Tell us about your tasty miso! How do you develop your recipes?
I love experimenting with my cooking and am constantly coming up with ideas — but the more I work with it, the more instinctive I have become in cooking with it. For instance, I know that nuts and seeds work very well with miso, so I have developed a really moreish roasted walnut miso sauce. I know that it marinades oily fish incredibly well with sake, so salmon and mackerel are happy bedfellows with miso! I love seeing other food writers work with miso, too like Yotam Ottolenghi, Nigel Slater and Diana Henry.
And you use snowmelt from the central Japanese Alps? That’s so interesting.
Our miso is made in an area of Japan known for miso-making because of its climate and proximity to spring water at the foot of the Japanese Alps. The Japanese care so much about where their ingredients come from, especially their source of water. So in the same area, you will find sake and soy sauce brewers who also rely on quality water in their production.
For those who aren’t familiar, what exactly is miso?
Miso is basically a cooking paste that has been made with soy beans and grains that have been fermented together. It has a thick, peanut butter-like consistency with colours ranging from golden yellow down to chocolate brown. The flavours of miso range from light and sweet, to dark and pungent, so the possibilities are endless when cooking with miso.
Traditionally, miso was used for making soups and broths, as in the famous miso soup, but its versatility as a cooking paste means it can be used to make dressings, marinades, sauces and even desserts. It’s most famously applied at Nobu restaurants as the signature dish – miso black cod.
How did it first come into existence? What’s the history of miso?
Miso is originally from China, but the Japanese have perfected the craft of making miso. They have been making it for over 700 years now! It’s one of Japan’s staple cooking ingredients, alongside rice, mirin and soy sauce. Miso made with white rice was originally a highly prized and precious food that was used in gifting and currency, and the ancient Samurai relied on miso as their source of protein. There are so many wonderful stories about miso in Japanese history, and today it remains a sentimental comfort food such as chicken soup. It reminds you of home, and it’s soothing and nourishing for the body.
Miso comes in so many varieties, textures and colors. Can you explain that?
Just like beer, wine and cheese, the number of varieties is infinite. Like these other fermented foods, the length of fermentation, the conditions and the ingredients chosen all impact on the type and flavour of miso created.
Making Miso is a craft like beer and wine-making. The result is a very light and creamy flavour in a 3-month Saikyo miso, which is very soft like a custard. And the result is dark and stiff for a 3-year miso called Hatcho. As a general rule, the darker the miso, the stronger the flavour. Traditionally miso was made with rice and soybeans, but other varieties of miso that use other (less expensive) grains like caramel-coloured barley miso, were developed.
How did you first decide to open Miso Tasty?
I wanted to pioneer miso in the UK when I realized that the quality and the availability of miso here was very limited. The more I learnt about miso, the more I wanted to share it, so I set up Miso Tasty with the mission to do that. Ultimately, I wanted to educate and share delicious quality miso. I want miso to become a cupboard staple, just like a jar of pesto that’s full of possibilities. When you discover something you think is amazing, you don’t want to keep it all to yourself!
What was the journey like for you?
It’s been very hard work, and has required a lot of patience! It took three long years to launch the business I had dreamed of, and when the products were finally out there, I realized that the hard work was only just the beginning! The journey has been incredibly rewarding though; I love seeing my products on shelves and growing my team.
Now you offer lots of varieties and flavors! Any favorites?
We launched last year with two flavours of miso soup, and we are now about to launch an exclusive limited edition batch of rice miso cooking pastes. This is a 6-month shiro, which is a white miso paste and an aka red miso paste. My favourite soup is probably the spicy aka, as I love the zesty kick. My favourite cooking paste is the shiro white miso paste, as I love making salad dressings and dips with it.
Do you have any great miso recipes you can share?
One quick and easy tip is to mix the same amount of white rice miso paste with the same amount of unsalted butter, and add a squeeze of lemon. You instantly have a really delicious marmite-esque spread, which tastes incredibly simple on some sourdough toast. Full of umami and really addictive!
What is a typical day like for you in London, working with Miso Tasty?
Every day is different! Days are filled with meetings and activities across the board — checking in with our PR, pitching to new customers, interacting on social media and ensuring that our supply chain is all running smoothly. The phone is constantly ringing and Skype meetings with team members outside of London are the norm. Occasionally, there will be an emergency to address and resolve quickly, which is a sure way to get me focused! Afternoons are often spent in the kitchen developing new recipes and working on collaborations with other foodies. Days end very late. I’m usually tapping away at my laptop into the night, but I love it!
What do you like most about being part of the eclectic food scene in London?
I love that anyone with a passion for food can — if they were willing to put the hard work in — start a food business here in London. There are hardly any barriers to entry.The community of food businesses is growing and generally super co-operative and helpful, rather than competitive. It’s a lovely, energetic and diverse community to be part of!