Even though I have great admiration for traditional miso soup, I don’t make it at home. The soup that I make has miso paste in it, but is a whole meal with noodles and various vegetables, and is much more suited to my attention-deficit-style of cooking.
In Japanese restaurants, miso soup comes in a small, graceful lacquered bowl, indicating a restraint that I have just never mastered. An elegantly boat-shaped spoon captures a disciplined mouthful of subtle flavors, the delicate miso suspended in the lightly fishy broth, perhaps a tiny square of tofu, and a diminutive sheet of seaweed. One does not consume quarts of real miso soup. That aspect of the experience was apparently lost on me the day I decided to try making my own poorly conceived, revved up version miso soup. I thought, they just never give you enough miso soup; I will make a huge vat. That was my first problem.
My second problem was clutter. I had all kinds of wonderful ingredients I’d picked up in the Asian market. I thought, why not put them all in? While traditional miso soup leaves the cook room for improvisation, Japanese cooking is predicated on a less-is-more aesthetic. Apparently that doesn’t mean dump every dried foodstuff in the cabinet into a gigantic pot.
A third issue was the dashi, the delicate stock which is key to miso soup. Variations on recipes for dashi abound on the internet, but traditional dashi has just two ingredients besides water: kombu (kelp) and dried, shaved bonito fish flakes. Shimbo Hiroko gives a typical recipe in The Japanese Kitchen. The dashi begins with water and kombu brought to a near boil. After removing the kombu, the cook adds the bonito flakes and boils it very briefly before shutting off the heat. Then the liquid is strained through cloth. The resulting broth is called ichiban dashi or first stock. The spent seaweed and fish flakes can then be simmered together to make a second, more flavorful stock, niban dashi. Either stock can be used for miso soup. This traditional method supposedly takes only 10 minutes, but requires the right ingredients—one of which, bonito flakes, isn’t likely to be found in typical American supermarket. And then there all those steps. A variety of powders, concentrated liquids or other short-cuts, are available in Asian markets, but are not recommended by traditional cookbook authors, a detail I failed to note before heading to the Asian market years ago.
My third problem with traditional miso soup ideal is attention to certain details. For instance, authentic miso relies on excellent stock, rather than a bunch of raucous flavorings. Miso soup broth is dashi and miso paste, nothing else. When I looked at the convenient little packets of dashinomoto, a dashi short-cut I’d bought from the Asian market, I assumed that they were like instant soup mix. In fact, they were designed to be used like tea bags—dropped into boiling water and then removed. Blithely, I poured the packet contents into my vat of liquid and watched the hard little pieces of fish re-circulate through the roiling bubbles, tossing and turning, but inexplicably never even beginning to dissolve. After vigorously boiling, hoping and then eventually despairing, I finally re-read the directions, which turned out to be in plain English. I’m pretty sure they said “Do not open packet.” Oops.
By this time I had over a gallon of liquid bubbling with clear noodles, shitake mushrooms, tofu, scallions, seaweed and fish shards. I poured the soup through a spaghetti colander lined with paper towels into a huge bowl, to remove as much of the stiff splinters of fins, bones, and eyeballs as I could. Unwilling to admit defeat or waste all those ingredients, I rinsed off the solids as well and dumped them back into the strained liquid and returned the whole ill-fated project to the stove. I don’t know what else was wrong with that stock, because who knows what was in that dashinomoto. Shimbo notes that some packages include other stronger tasting fish in addition to bonito and some have added chemicals.
Whatever was in there tasted awful, so I added yet more water and miso. The soup was perilously close to the top of the pot, it was nearly 9:00 at night, and my dinner not very appetizing. Fortunately I was living by myself at the time, and didn’t subject Wayne to it. I served myself a large bowl, and tried to convince myself it was only unappealing because I was tired from working on it for three hours.
Years later, I have two different miso pastes in the back of the fridge, but I add them to other soups which don’t have pretensions of becoming a proper Miso Soup. I make a vegetarian dashi which is easy and requires no bonito flakes and straining nor suspicious packets. The following recipe for noodle soup looks complicated, but is quite easy and super flexible. It’s just what the doctor ordered when I’m feeling out of sorts. I make it with whatever I remembered to pick up at the grocery store and dried staples in my Asian foods cabinet.
- 5 dried black mushrooms
- 5 small pieces of dried kombu (kelp) or wakame (another kind of seaweed)
- 2 cups water
- Simmer the mushrooms and seaweed in the water for about 15 minutes.
- Remove the mushrooms and kombu with a slotted spoon
- Ta-da! Dashi!
You can thinly slice the mushrooms afterward to reincorporate into your soup. Because a lot of the flavor has soaked out into the broth, I like to soak them for a few minutes in a sauce that is approximately: 1 tsp soy sauce, a few shakes sesame oil, and ¼ cup water, with a few pieces of garlic and ginger. The seaweed can also go into the soup, though you may way to reintroduce them at the end because if you cook them for too long, they get unappetizingly mushy.
Vegetarian Noodle Soup with Asian Flavors
Most of these ingredients should be available at your supermarket or, if you’re lucky, at your local farmer’s market. I’ve included more information about each ingredient on my Guide to Asian Ingredients page.
- 2 quarts homemade vegetable stock or 1 quart prepared stock plus 1 quart water
- ½ inch disc of ginger, minced
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 2 teaspoons of sesame oil (or to taste)
- 1 TBS of soy sauce
- optional: ½ tsp of chili garlic sauce
- 12 ounces of round udon noodles
- optional: cubed extra firm tofu
- optional: soaked mushrooms from the dashi
- 1 TBS miso paste—with a few TBS warm tap water slowly stirred in
- Assortment of chopped vegetables which can include: mung bean sprouts, snow peas, sugar snap peas, bok choi, broccoli, green onions additional mushrooms, canned baby corn). Altogether, four cups of vegetables or less.
- Optional: Gomasio and Sriracha hot sauce for garnish
- While you’re preparing the vegetarian dashi, put your veggie stock into another big pot and bring it to a simmer. (If the veggie stock has been sitting in the fridge for several days, you should bring it to a full-fledged boil, first)
- Add the vegetarian dashi, ginger, garlic, sesame oil, soy sauce, and chili garlic sauce if you’re using it to the veggie stock. Taste the broth and adjust until you’re pretty happy. You don’t have to be thoroughly satisfied yet because the miso is yet to come. The veggies also can change the flavor.
- In yet another pot, boil the water for the noodles and begin to cook them according to the package directions, keeping to the al dente side.
- Meanwhile, if you’re using tofu, additional mushrooms, baby corn or mushrooms from the dashi, plunk ‘em in to the broth.
- With only five minutes left to go on the noodle cooking, add any vegetables that need some cooking to become yummy, like the white parts of the green onion, the broccoli and bok choi.
- In the last minute you can add the snow peas, sugar snap peas, mung bean sprouts, and/or green parts of the green onions. Alternately you can let these veggies get blanched by placing them in the individual serving bowls underneath the soup.
- Add the miso. Taste and adjust. (If you used homemade veggie stock you may need to add salt). Keep the soup on the burner on low to keep it hot while people are serving themselves.
- Strain the noodles, cool quickly with cool water, and add some sesame oil to prevent stickage.
- Self-service time: Each diner gets a big bowl and starts by putting a generous wad of noodles. If not already added to the soup, place a handful of uncooked veggies (like bean sprouts and peapods) on top. Then ladle the soup atop this mound. Garnish with a couple raw bean sprouts and gomasio.
 Stock: Here is a case where making your own veggie stock is awesome—it won’t have any of the off tastes that sometimes you find in pre-made veggie stocks and you can add ginger right to the stock. On the other hand, if you’re pressed for time, prepared stock makes this go very quickly.