This time of year is all about soup, what with cold season in full swing. You know how it is... you drag yourself home from work, head full of cement, and all you want is something warm and comforting to eat that will make you feel better. If you're looking for lighter soup that's nourishing and easy to digest -- as opposed to a thick, rich stew -- you might consider having a big bowl of miso soup. More interesting that your plain old chicken soup, miso is comfort food with a little international flair.
For those uninitiated in the ways of Japanese cuisine, miso is made from fermented soybeans and other grains, which are made into thick paste that is rich in protein and nutrients. While there are many different kinds of miso, the two you're most likely to find at your local grocery store are red miso and white miso. Red miso is saltier, having been fermented longer, and white miso is a little lighter in flavor. For making miso soup, you want to pick up a tub of white miso, also known as shiro miso. Note: This stuff lasts forever in the fridge. Seriously. I think my tub of miso is over a year old and it still tastes the exact same. Also, a little goes a long way, so don't buy a huge vat of miso unless you plan on willing it to your grandkids.
Another important ingredient in miso soup is dashi, or Japanese soup stock. Dashi is the base of many Japanese soups and sauces. While you can just buy dashi mix from the grocery store, I highly recommend making your own dashi -- just like chicken stock, it's way better when made from scratch! Dashi isn't vegetarian by default, but you can find veg dashi at Asian grocery stores.
Miso soup is a particularly good soup to eat when you're sick, due to its ample protein and high electrolyte content. Plus, fermented foods are easier to digest if your gut is sluggish from the virus du jour at your kid's school, so if you're just generally feeling the ick, a bowl of miso soup might be the one thing that will make you feel better.
There are several places in the Bay Area to get an incredible bowl of miso soup:
Cha-Ya Vegetarian Japanese Restaurant
1686 Shattuck Ave
Berkeley, CA 94709
762 Valencia St
San Francisco, CA 94110
1207 Union St
San Francisco, CA 94109
4330 Moorpark Ave
San Jose, CA 95129
Gombei Japanese Restaurant
193 Jackson St
San Jose, CA 95112
Norikonoko Japanese Restaurant
2556 Telegraph Ave
Berkeley, CA 94704
1830 4th St
Berkeley, CA 94710
Some Japanese restaurants still use a packaged dry mix, so if you're going somewhere else, I'd call ahead to make sure you're getting a quality bowl of soup made with fresh ingredients. Pre-fab miso soup is ok, but once you've had the real thing, you'll never go back.
Speaking of the real thing, why don't you try making miso soup yourself at home? It's super easy, and will be leagues better than most of the stuff you'll find in restaurants.
Homemade Miso Soup Recipe
Makes: 2 bowls of soup
1 6x6-inch piece of kombu, soaked 30-minutes to overnight in 5 cups of water
3 tablespoons bonito flakes
1/2 pound silken tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3 tablespoons white miso paste
1 spring onion, sliced, for garnish
1. After the kombu has soaked overnight, bring the seaweed and its soak water into a medium-sized pot. Bring to a boil over a medium heat, then allow to simmer for 10 minutes. Add bonito flakes and remove from heat.
2. Allow soup to steep for another 10 minutes, then strain the broth into another pot. Bring to boil over a medium-low heat. Add tofu and cook for 1 minute. Remove from heat.
3. Ladle out about 1/2 cup of broth into a small bowl and mix in miso paste until it is completely dissolved and there are no lumps. Pour the miso into the rest of the broth and stir well. Place over medium heat just until the soup begins to simmer, then remove from heat and ladle into bowls. Top with sliced onion for garnish.
Still feeling sluggish? Here are a few other soups that will make you feel better. They're great if you're perfectly healthy, too: