Seiji Ando never had to learn how to make miso soup. In Japan, it was the kind of thing they taught in elementary school. But as far as he can remember, he never really had to learn because he just always knew. His father and his grandfather were chefs who owned a sushi restaurant in Osaka, so he was around miso soup often growing up. At home, it was breakfast every morning; at his father’s restaurant, it was an after-school snack.
The standard version of miso soup might involve little more than soft tofu, rehydrated seaweed and a lily-pad suspension of scallions, but at home, Ando said, there are no rules. You could add thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms at the end; fried agedashi tofu, clams and even chicken are all fair game when bulking up miso soup at home. Anchored by miso, the Japanese paste made from fermented soybeans and grains, the quotidian dish is riffable, restorative and easy on the stomach. It’s the perfect soup.
Ando, now 66, has been living in the United States since 1979 and runs his own restaurant, Benkay, in Portland, Maine. It was there that I had the best miso soup of my life. Last December, when his wife, Hyon, who was working as a server, asked why I was eating alone, I said that I was visiting from New York — and that I loved the soup. “This guy from New York likes the soup!” she shouted to the kitchen, then turned to me and told me she has a daughter my age.
She sneaked me a second bowl. It tasted even better than the first. What she didn’t know was that I hadn’t eaten in nearly 24 hours, after a grueling bout of airport drama I won’t get into here. I was nearly floating away until that miso soup pulled me back down into my seat. Hot sake washed my day away (or was it her kindness?), and I was able to lean into my evening.
The increased smokiness in the stock is a big draw for this single-malt Scotch lover.
Before, the point of miso soup for me was noshing on the tofu, seaweed and scallions, but Ando’s version taught me how much work a superior dashi can do. In Japanese cooking, dashi is the stock that starts everything, and Ando’s trick involves using more katsuobushi, those aromatic flakes of bonito, than you would think. The increased smokiness in the stock is a big draw for this single-malt Scotch lover, though with a bowl of miso soup, there’s nothing like a carafe of hot sake to complete the liquid appetizer course before the sushi.
In fact, as Ando advised, a splash of sake and mirin to the soup itself can add just the right hint of sweetness to round out all the salty, smoky, umami flavors of the dashi. If you’ve steeped the kombu just briefly, fishing it out before it lends bitterness, you may not need the added sweetness. Again, there are no rules at home. Many Japanese home cooks use an instant powdered dashi like Hondashi, or you could replace the katsuobushi entirely with dried shiitakes or just all kombu for a vegan version. What’s key is that you don’t boil the dashi ingredients too much. It’s a gentle extraction, the baby tooth of stocks.
I asked Ando what he does with the spent kombu, a question I often get in my own recipes. “Just throw it away,” he said. You could simmer it again with sake and soy sauce to turn it into kombu tsukudani, a wonderful Japanese side dish, but there’s no demand for that at his restaurant, Benkay. Most of his customers are American, he said. There’s not much of a Japanese population in the city, but what he does get are visitors from Japan. They always stop by his restaurant, where a giant vat of redolent dashi awaits. If you’re worried about sourcing a good miso, then don’t. “We don’t have much choice around this area,” Ando told me, so he’s had to adjust his recipe to fortify what he can find.
In the end, like all home cooking, the choice is yours: White, or shiro, miso is made with a higher proportion of rice, which lends a milder, sweeter flavor, whereas red, or aka, miso is made with more soybeans, resulting in a bolder, more umami-rich taste and a darker color as well. A proper bowl of soup made with an excellent, complexly flavored miso is unbeatable, but that’s where the extra bonito flakes, sake and mirin come in to support whatever miso you can find. Immigrant chefs cook to adapt to their surroundings. Ando’s miso soup shows that nimbleness.
Though I doubt slurping a plastic pint container of takeout miso soup will ever lose its charm, there is something magical about making it yourself at home. And if you are like me and have been eating miso soup at Japanese American restaurants your whole life, then learning the components of the dish will open a window into your past — many windows, actually. The first time I made a dashi with bonito flakes, their barbecued smokiness nearly shouted at me, “This is why miso soup tastes like that!” I love ingredients that create these kinds of portals of understanding (dried oregano always reminds me of pizza, for instance, while almond extract recalls cherries). That dashi was a flashback moment to all the miso soups I’ve had before, but this one was perfect because it was mine.
Recipe: Miso Soup