Most of my cooking knowledge that I picked up when I started to cook was from my Japanese host family that I stayed with when I first visited Japan in 2007. Japanese home cooking is a different experience to what we see in the restaurants here. It's simple, healthy and satisfying even in small amounts. A normal Japanese meal is roughly 'ichi-ju, san-sai': one soup, three sides. Generally, the soup is a miso soup, and a properly made miso soup is a real pleasure. I came to appreciate this on that visit to Japan and maintained my love of miso since, so a few weeks ago I was very excited to attend a day course on making miso hosted by Junko Hamilton at her lovely home in Blackrock. Miso soup is by far the most common use of miso paste but it is used in salad dressings,and in many other Japanese dishes. I think there's a lot of parallels between cheese here and miso in Japan: there are many, many kinds and variations and the making of it is shrouded in a veil of mysticism. Despite being an essential item, not a lot of Japanese people even know how to make miso paste. Over here in Ireland we don't get much sense of the variety of miso products available, though some companies like Clearspring do stock rice miso and barley miso alongside red and white. I really love miso in any form so I was very excited to take part in this course. Like cheese making, miso requires a small investment of equipment and the essential ingredient: Koji. Koji is fermentation culture that is at the heart of many quintessentially Japanese ingredients such as sake and soy sauce. You can read a little more about it here.
Besides Koji, we needed salt, good quality soy beans, slow-cooked soft overnight and steamed rice. This was inoculated with Koji for several hours at a consistent humidity to make rice-koji. Rice is only one option as a medium for Koji. Junko-san explained that where she comes from in the Kansai region white miso with a much higher concentration of Koji was made. This makes the miso mature faster, taking perhaps a month, where our rice-koji miso will take six. Having a medium like rice is handy though over here where koji isn't so easily obtained. You can buy it in powdered form in Japan which travels successfully.
First we had to mince our soybeans, then pound them into paste with Junko's Japanese pestle and mortar. Next, in the wooden dish (same as what is used to make sushi rice) the salt and rice-koji is mixed in with the beans and eventually shaped into balls which are then pressed into a sterilised container, making sure there is no air trapped within, this is covered with a weight of salt and that was it!
The whole process was very relaxing and satisfying. Once we had finished Junko-san laid out a simple and tasty vegetarian Japanese meal: Rice & miso soup (made with the last of her previous batch of home-made miso) along with kinpira renkon (lotus root), beans simmered with root vegetables and seaweed and kimchi. It was incredibly filling and satisfying. This was followed with a matcha milk pudding and hojicha – a tea made with the stalks of green tea leaves, roasted. It has a round, nutty taste and contains no caffeine. Junko-san told us that where she comes from, the Kyoto area, it's hojicha that is most commonly drank everyday rather than more famous green teas like sencha.
This was a fantastic learning experience in a warm and relaxed atmosphere. I hope to see more of Junko-san; she has a lot to teach about food and Japanese culture around eating and drinking. I'm very thankful to Junko-san and my fellow participants for a very pleasant day!
Junko-san will be hosting another day course on the 27th of April from 10:30-2:00. This will be a demonstration introducing Japanese cooking techniques and followed with a Japanese style lunch for all participants. It will be an introduction to the principles of Japanese cooking and more details can be seen here. For details contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
*photos taken by Lolo Demoitie.