Having not been back to Japan for more than three years, I decided to visit my family at the start of this year. Our family home is in Yamanashi, deep in the countryside of Japan. An area renowned for its connection to food and healthy living, there are plenty of food lovers in the area. It is home too; to Suntory whisky and Koshu wine, ok – not that healthy then!
January might not be the choice time of year to visit the region, it is normally under a blanket of snow and is pretty fresh outside. The region is famous for its beauty in the summer and gives tired, hustled Tokyoites a place to escape to, much like the Cotswolds here. Winter in Yamanashi is quiet and life has a slower pace. Locals take the chance to replenish, lots of cookery happens and indoor workshops to teach, or pass on skills.
Daikan 大寒 is the name given to the coldest time of the year (one of the 24 solar periods of the traditional Asian calendar) from the 20th of January to the 4th of February. This is when the Gomi family gather to make their organic miso supply for the year.
Miso is certainly one of the important core Japanese ingredients. It is great to see it becoming more popular here now, with different varieties available on the supermarket shelves. For some, there is still a mystery about what exactly miso is made from. In its simplest form, it is a fermented soya bean paste. However other ingredients such as rice or barley can be added, allowing blends and the creation of many many delicious types depending on the miso maker’s recipe.
When I teach, I am often asked about miso and its many different varieties. Should I choose red, white or dark? Like beer, ale or stout; miso comes in many styles, both flavour and colour vary according to the region of origin. The preference is really up to you and the dish you are preparing, there are no hard and fast rules. Each type of miso will offer a range of astringency, umami, saltiness and of course colour.
Yamanashi is in the Koshu region and so for my family, we use Koshu miso most often. It is is produced from a blend of hard wheat koji and half rice koji. Koji being a fungus, essential in triggering the fermentation process. This mixture makes a really tasty medium miso, not too strongly flavoured in any direction. Its mild and subtle flavour, mean it is great for everyday dishes.
This year we met on the 31st of January, a cold Winter’s day when we were glad to be indoors and pounding the soy beans to keep warm. We invite in friends and other families, as it is easier to do in bulk and is a great excuse for a get together. The workshops are sponsored by the government, the aim being to encourage people to eat well and for continuity of traditional skills. At the start of the day, the teachers played this miso making video, a catchy tune that was heard being hummed and sung later that morning.
We made 16kg of Miso on the day. Apparently the average household in Japan gets through about 7.5kg per year. So we should be quite well set up, even with the dent made by me bringing pots of it back to the UK. Even if there’s some left, miso can be kept for years, my mother is still serving from 2013’s batch. It develops a more mature taste and is the reason for the darker colour that develops.
Following the workshop we will try a lovely, regional Koshu noodle dish called Hoto noodles. You can read more about it here, in a small piece I wrote for the Guardian : Comfort Soups -Nostalgia in a bowl or magic medicine?
Hoto noodles are similar to udon, a white wheat noodle. Slow cooking the noodles with seasonal vegetables such as Kabocha pumpkin, daikon, and nappa cabbage , shitake mushroom and Koshu miso, makes this a wonderful, warming dish. Ideal after a morning’s miso making.
For further information: read about my Miso Making Workshop and other One-off Workshops