My adoptive parents made a point to connect me to my Japanese heritage. Being a foodie, this often meant going out for Japanese food. Most of those meals started the same way: with miso soup. That’s a big part of the reason I am so fond of this beloved soup. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the soup happens to be delicious. Here’s how miso soup became such an important part of Japanese cuisine.
What Is Miso Soup?
Miso soup starts with dashi stock, which you can learn more about in my previous article. Miso is a fermented soybean paste, often mixed with rice or other grains to balance out the flavor. This paste is mixed into the dashi stock, giving it a hefty dose of umami. Ingredients are added to the soup for texture and savory flavor. Popular ingredients include tofu, seaweed, and scallions. This happens to be my go-to flavor combination, but there is plenty of room to mix and match! While traveling throughout Japan, I’ve come across bowls of miso with mushrooms, potatoes, daikon, and taro. As with so many great dishes, it’s open to new interpretations.
The Origins of Miso Soup
As with many of the dishes I have come across in my travels, miso soup has a fascinating history. Like several other iconic Japanese dishes (for example, ramen), miso soup actually originated in China. Buddhist priests are believed to have introduced the soup to Japan in the 7th century CE. The fermentation process that creates miso paste was originally used to preserve foods during the hotter months.
While it might have originated in China, miso soup quickly spread throughout Japan. Miso became so popular that in the year 701, the Emperor Mommu established a bureau to regulate its production, trade, and taxation. Miso soup was originally seen as a delicacy primarily reserved for the nobility. This is because miso paste often uses rice, which at the time was hard to come by for the average Japanese family. As the soup became more widespread, the kind of miso soup one ate often reflected their class. The rich ate rice miso, while the peasants made do with grains like barley and millet. I can’t talk about miso soup without talking about the samurai. Japan’s legendary warriors famously took a liking to miso soup. The soup became a daily meal for samurai warriors during the Kamakura period, from 1185-1333. They prized the energy-packed soup for its replenishing properties (similar to how chicken noodle soup has become such a classic pick-me-up here in the U.S.). This is where the custom of serving miso soup with meals began. So the next time you slurp a steaming bowl of miso soup before diving into your bento box, thank a samurai.
Miso Soup Today
I am happy to report that today, Japan has over 1,000 miso producers. As you might expect with such a broadly popular dish, regional variations abound. In the north – where most of the country’s rice is grown – rice miso tends to be the most popular. In the southern regions, barley miso reigns supreme. Prepackaged “instant” miso soup is a popular purchase in Japan as well as the States, but the dish is refreshingly simple to make. And, of course, exceptional miso soup can be had all over Tokyo.
Tokyo’s Top 5 Miso Soups
I tasted some incredibly flavorful miso soups during my travels throughout Tokyo. Here are my Top 5:
It’s only fitting to start this list with a restaurant almost entirely devoted to miso soup. Misojyu, located in the historic Asakusa neighborhood – only serves two dishes: miso soup and onigiri (rice balls). Both dishes are known as classic comfort food, which means this is the perfect place to warm up on a cold Tokyo day. Misojyu specializes in unconventional preparations of the classic soup, from “milk miso” to a tomato-based miso soup.
This unpretentious sushi spot near the famed Toyosu Market is known for its miso soup. The soup here is served with tiny clams, for even more briny ocean flavor. I’m told that the sushi at Daiwa has gained quite the cult following as well.
While traveling through Japan, I found out that a steaming bowl of miso soup makes a great breakfast. And I like to get my breakfast in early (shoutout to all my morning people). Unfortunately, finding a breakfast spot in Tokyo that opens even somewhat early (say, 8:00 a.m.) is surprisingly difficult. That’s why I was glad to find Tsumugi. Located near the 400 year-old Tsukiji Hongan Temple, this elegant café serves an epic 18-dish breakfast, which includes bowls of porridge and miso. It’s a great way to start the day, though you probably won’t be able to go on your morning jog right after.
Miso ramen – which uses miso soup as a base for Japan’s most famous noodle dish – is the specialty at Do Miso, located in Tokyo’s bustling Ginza neighborhood. The most popular dish here is the “Toku Miso Kotteri Ramen,” which features a flavorful blend of five different types of miso, as well as grated ginger. Heat lovers can try the “Miso Orochon Ramen,” which can be ordered at five different spice levels. Just make sure you’ve got a cold glass of Sapporo nearby, in case things get too tingly.
File this one under “day trip.” After spending enough time in the world’s largest urban area, you’ll almost certainly need a quick trip to the countryside. And if you love miso soup as much as I do, you can head to the beautiful mountainous region of Nagano Prefecture, about a 90-minute train ride from Tokyo. Here, you’ll find Hikari Miso, one of the country’s leading miso producers. Tours of the factory are available, so that you can witness miso production first-hand. Word to the wise though: don’t come on an empty stomach. You will get hungry.
If you enjoyed this article or have suggestions on how we can improve it, please leave us a comment below. Also, make sure to check out other articles I’ve created or stories I’ve written about food culture – here.