The ability to prepare miso soup was never required of Seiji Ando. This was the kind of material that was taught in Japan’s elementary schools at that time. However, as far as he can recall, he was never actually required to learn anything because he had just always known it. As he was growing up in Osaka, both of his parents were chefs, and the family had a sushi business, so he was exposed to miso soup on a regular basis. When he was at his father’s restaurant after school, it was an after-school snack, but when he was at home, it was breakfast.
It’s possible that the traditional recipe for miso soup consists of little more than silken tofu, rehydrated seaweed, and a lily-pad suspension of scallions, but Ando says there are no restrictions when it comes to making miso soup at home. When making miso soup at home, you may bulk it up with a variety of ingredients such fried agedashi tofu, clams, chicken, and even shiitake mushrooms that have been sliced very thinly. The everyday dish is riffable, soothing, and easy on the stomach since it is anchored by miso, the Japanese paste derived from fermented soybeans and grains. It’s the ideal bowl of soup.
Ando, who is now 66 years old and has been a resident of the United States since 1979, is the proprietor of his own restaurant called Benkay, which is located in Portland, Maine. There, I enjoyed the most delicious bowl of miso soup I’ve ever had in my entire life. She gave me food from a second bowl behind my back. What she didn’t know was that I hadn’t eaten in almost 24 hours, as a result of a taxing episode of airport drama that I won’t go into here. She didn’t know this because she didn’t ask me.
Before trying Ando’s version, I thought the best part of miso soup was nibbling on the tofu, seaweed, and scallions, but now I realise how much more of a difference a high-quality dashi can make. In Japanese cuisine, dashi is the stock that is used to start everything, and Ando’s method entails using more katsuobushi, which are aromatic flakes of dried bonito, than you would think is necessary.
In point of fact, Ando recommended that a splash of sake and mirin be added to the soup itself in order to offer a touch of sweetness that would round out all of the savoury, smokey, and umami qualities of the dashi. If you only let the kombu steep for a short time and remove it before it has a chance to impart its bitter flavour, you probably won’t need to add any additional sugar. One more time, there are no rules in the house. You may make a vegan version of the dish by replacing the katsuobushi with dried shiitakes or only using kombu instead of all of the katsuobushi. Instant powdered dashi, such as Hondashi, is used by many Japanese home cooks. The important thing is to not boil the dashi components for an excessive amount of time. The extraction of the infant teeth from stocks is a rather painless procedure.
I asked Ando what he does with the used kombu because this is a question that frequently arises when I am developing new dishes. Simply put it in the trash, he advised. You could make a great Japanese side dish called kombu tsukudani by simmering it again with sake and soy sauce, but there is no demand for such dish at his restaurant, Benkay. According to him, the majority of his clients are from the United States. Although there is not a sizable Japanese community in the city, he does see a fair number of tourists from from that country. They never miss an opportunity to visit his restaurant, where they are greeted with an enormous vat of fragrant dashi. If you are concerned about finding a high-quality miso, you shouldn’t be. Ando shared with me that “we don’t have much options around this area,” so he’s been forced to alter his recipe to make the most of what he can find.
In the end, as is the case with any home cuisine, the decision is up to you: When making white, or shiro, miso, a higher proportion of rice is used, which lends a milder, sweeter flavour. When making red, or aka, miso, a higher proportion of soybeans is used, which results in a bolder, more umami-rich taste as well as a darker colour. Both types of miso are fermented soybean pastes. It is impossible to top a bowl of soup that has been prepared with a miso that is good and has a variety of layered flavours; but, adding additional bonito flakes, sake, and mirin can help reinforce the flavour of any miso that you use. Cooking is a way for immigrant chefs to adjust to their new homes. The miso soup that Ando makes demonstrates this dexterity.
Even though I highly doubt that drinking miso soup from a plastic pint container purchased from a takeout restaurant would ever lose its allure, there is something enchanted about cooking it on your own at home. And if you are like me and have spent your whole life eating miso soup at Japanese American restaurants, then understanding the components of the meal will open a window into your past – actually, it will open several windows.