Tart tomatoes. Steaming, sweet rice. Salty grilled salmon. Heady miso soup. My first breakfast at Hitoshi’s family home before we were married was unforgettable: warmth, flavour, simplicity, variety, nourishment.
My future mother-in-law’s miso soup was not entirely made from scratch. This takes several hours starting with soaking kelp and shaved dried bonito to make the broth. While Hitoshi’s family also used to make their own miso, they now get it at the grocery store. For the soup that morning, only the vegetables were from the garden but there was still technique needed to get the seasoning and miso balanced with the rest of the ingredients.
Hitoshi and I stayed with his family regularly as our wedding date got closer. Every morning when I came into the kitchen for breakfast, I noticed a small pot of miso soup waiting on the back of the stove. The soup was just enough to feed as many people as were home for breakfast.
My mother-in-law’s soup has a distinctive taste that cannot be replicated. She makes the soup from ingredients that suit the season. She may use sweet Asian carrot, daikon, a milder form of radish, burdock, a fibrous root, lotus, onion, egg, potato, mushroom, cabbage, pork or fried strips of tofu. Constants include chunks of semi-firm tofu and wakame, slippery, dark green squares of seaweed that float near the surface.
Once the soup is ready and served in small bowls, toppings can be chopped negi, a thick green onion, sesame seeds, sesame oil or crisp, baked squares of seaweed. Sprinkling my father-in-law’s homemade shichimi or seven spices or adding a drop or two of chili oil gives the soup spicy heat.
Hitoshi’s grandmother made the soup for the family every morning until she passed away. Her soup was special and different from Hitoshi’s mother’s. Hitoshi’s favorite version was with onion. Going back generations, the head woman of the family made the soup that started every day. Each soup was unique and matched the woman who made it.
Even though the women in my husband’s family make the soup, everyone knows how to make it. Hitoshi learned how in school, along with cooking rice and using hashi or chopsticks.
In our home, Hitoshi made our miso soup. Shortly after we met, I tried but my soup tasted like water until Hitoshi told me that I had forgotten the dashi or seasoning. I tried again but my soup was too salty or I found chunks of miso paste in the bottom. I hadn’t learned the secrets of adding miso.
Making miso soup seemed mysterious, unattainable, and laden with tradition. The closest I came to making my own was preparing the ingredients and adding them with Hitoshi guiding each step. I always left the finish, the miso, to him.
Only recently have I found the courage to make miso soup alone. After years of watching Hitoshi in the kitchen and tasting his soup, which was different from his mother’s, I felt ready. I went through the steps, tasted my work and offered it to Hitoshi.
“It’s good! It tastes like mine.” I floated around our apartment, secure in my accomplishment.
We do not make miso soup every day like Hitoshi’s family. When we do, it is often the main meal and we eat it in large bowls. Miso soup is our essential comfort food and one that easily takes us to our other home, Japan.
Would you like to make my first ever successful miso soup pictured above? Excellent! Try our recipe and let us know how you do!
What are your experiences with miso soup? Do you have any family traditions around soup or another food?