Miso and Comfort Foods

BY Andrea Nakayama TIMESeptember 27, 2015 PRINT

One time, I was hosting a masters nutrition group, and one of the women bemoaned the fact that, because of food sensitivities, she couldn’t feed her children the same restorative foods her mother and grandmother had fed her.

For me, the soothing foods I ate when I was sick were pastini (tiny star-shaped wheat pastas) with butter and cottage cheese, and chicken soup. My son Gilbert eats none of these things.

Yet as we discussed in the group that night, healing and comforting foods stem from how they are delivered—with love and nurturance and the intent to doctor an ailment. They are, perhaps curiously, not necessarily the food itself.

If I serve a gluten-free, refined sugar-free cinnamon toast to my son as part of his breakfast, with the same love and sweetness that I remember receiving my cinnamon toast as a kid, Gilbert will likely foster that same appealing memory.

It’s chock-full of vitamins, minerals, and protein.

Hot chocolate, though not from a package in my adult household, is met with the same delight I experienced in my own childhood when trekking in from the snow. And soothing soup around here, especially when there is a bellyache or the hint of a flu, is not chicken, but miso.

Gilbert has come to expect the administration of miso soup in the same ways that I expected chicken soup. The tradition lives on. It’s merely tweaked to meet our dietary and culinary fancy.

The tradition of miso is an ancient one. It’s a food with deep roots, deep bacterial roots, that is. Our ancestors used varying fermentation methods to prevent spoilage, maximize digestibility, and promote flavor.

They turned cabbages into krauts, milks into yogurt and kefir, cucumbers into pickles, and in China and Japan, they transformed soybeans into miso. Miso not only has a culinary tradition, but a curative one as well. It’s been used successfully for these conditions:

  • Digestive disturbances
  • Cancer prevention
  • Radiation sickness
  • Cholesterol balance
  • Blood pressure reduction
  • Immune boosting
  • Chronic pain reduction
  • Even low libido

It’s a perfect survival food due to its high nutritive value—it’s chock-full of vitamins, minerals, and protein. And most importantly, it’s almost as easy to make as canned soup. (If you can’t eat soy, no worries, see below for more details. You can be miso-happy too!)


Simple Traditional Miso Soup

1 large onion, thinly sliced
4 cups water or broth of choice
2 tablespoons miso paste (see below for brands)

Optional toppings: sliced green onions, shaved ginger root, soaked arame or hijiki seaweed, or soaked and strained bonitio (dried fish) flakes

Combine water and onions in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 20 minutes or until onions soften. Turn off heat.

Remove a portion (about 1 cup) of broth from the pan and place in a bowl. Allow to cool slightly and add your miso paste to the bowl. Stir to create a slurry, allowing all the miso paste to blend into the liquid.

Add the miso broth back to the pot and stir to combine. Add toppings of choice, if any, and serve.

Healing, comforting foods stem from how they are delivered, not necessarily the food itself.

Note: You can add any other vegetables that you’d like in the first steps. Cabbage and shiitake mushrooms are my favorite. Or you can omit them altogether for a simple cup of broth for a nourishing midafternoon snack at work, school, or out on a wilderness trip where you can at least boil water. Just add the paste to the hot water and stir.

Other Uses for Miso

  • Dairy-free pestos (substitute for the cheese)
  • Sauces (combines really nicely with tahini, or sesame butter, for greens, and noodles)
  • Gravies (mix it in to provide a bit more flavor and nutrition)
  • Marinades (combine with oils, vinegars, and spices for grilling or roasting)

Buying Miso

You’ll find miso in the form of a paste in containers in the refrigerator section of your health food store. It’s usually in the area with the eggs and tofu. You’ll see that there may be several different brands and several different kinds.

All miso varieties are made from beans (often soy, but sometimes chickpea or aduki are available) or grains (often rice or barley, but sometimes millet), and a special ingredient called koji.

Koji is to miso what malt is to beer. Koji are grains (mainly rice, but also barley) that are fermented with bacterial molds. During the production of koji, these beneficial bacteria will produce enzymes that will later work to predigest or break down the proteins and carbohydrates in the food.

These are the most common varieties of miso:

Red Miso. Typically made from white rice, barley or soybeans, red miso has the highest protein content of all miso. Start here if you’ve never made your own miso soup before.

White Miso. This lighter-flavor miso usually uses less bean and more grain, customarily rice. It’s the sweetest and most carbohydrate-dense miso.

Barley Miso. Clearly this type of miso favors barley and not rice. It’s salty and rich. Note that it is not gluten-free.

Soybean Miso. This type of miso uses no grain at all. It can sometimes be a bit more chunky than the other miso pastes. It’s often referred to as Hatcho miso or “the miso of emperors.”

Specialty Miso. There are more of these available these days. They use fermented chickpeas, aduki beans, added fermented vegetables or spices, and specialty grains. If you’re new to miso, start simple and then start to explore in this specialty realm.

My favorite brand is South River Miso. Also listed are some other good-quality brands you might find at your store. Several of the brands have gluten-free and soy-free options. They’re all unpasteurized, organic, and non-GMO, which are your most important purchasing objectives when buying miso.

With a career born of a personal family health crisis, award-winning functional nutritionist and educator Andrea Nakayama takes the idea of food as personalized medicine beyond a clinical practice. Her online programs at and guide her clients in taking ownership over their health.

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