Miso power (+ recipes)
Give your taste buds a thrill with this umami filled paste
In my early 20s when I was running my first business, making croissants in Brazil, my weight ballooned to over 90kg. My friends affectionately called me La Gordita — the plump one.
On my return to New Zealand I tried all kinds of binge diets — eating only liquorice and lemons was all the rage at the time — but as is the way with any so-called "diet", any short-term loss was rapidly returned.
A couple of years later I moved to New York and enrolled in two courses at the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York. One was a residential course for chefs on nutrition.
At our first lecture we were presented with a long table holding 100 plates, each containing a different ingredient with a value of 100 calories. Some plates were piled high with food — all vegetables — while others held a scant handful of nuts or potato chips, or a little pat of butter or cheese. And just like that, it became 100 per cent clear to me that all foods are not created equal.
During the course we learned to prepare food that was low in fat but high in complex carbs, learning lots of tricks along the way for making "low fat" food tasty. Fat has a beguiling effect in cooking — not only does it carry flavours but it gives food mouthfeel, that appealing fullness on the palate. Take it out and food can taste flat and bland, so this is where ingredients like miso come in.
The secret is umami, a natural glutamate that gives food a satisfying richness and depth of flavour without actually being fatty.
Don't get me wrong, I love butter, cream and olive oil, but if you rely on them alone to deliver great flavour in your cooking, then you end up inhaling too many calories.
Umami, which translates roughly from Japanese as "savoury deliciousness", is found in a variety of foods — mushrooms, anchovies, tomato paste, parmesan, chicken and beef stocks and fish sauce, to name a few. Miso is full of it, which is why a little miso paste mixed into a dressing or sauce gives it a deeply layered taste. Miso is also packed with protein, which makes a bowl of miso soup the ultimate hangover cure.
Combining miso, fresh and dried mushrooms and parmesan, this soup is an umami bomb of flavour. To turn it into a meal add some cooked noodles and bok choy or spinach. Get the recipe
This miso marinade is so useful - it's wonderful with fish, chicken, pork, beef and even tofu. Its rich umami flavours work best if left to do their thing over a day or overnight. You can store it in a jar in the fridge until needed - it will keep for several weeks. If you don't have sake you could use sherry instead.
I like to use it with skirt steak as it's so flavoursome, and provided you cook it hot and fast and serve it rare it is juicy and tasty. The trick is to have it only about 2-3cm thick so it browns nicely on the outside while still being rare in the middle. Get the recipe
Many asian greens come from the brassica family, and as such have a slightly mustardy, clean taste, so are good partners to any rich, slow-cooked meat dish. With high water content, bok choy doesn't reheat well, so it should be cooked at the last minute.
Ginger miso sauce is also great drizzled over roasted pumpkin or grilled eggplant slices, stir-fried with blanched broccoli and cauliflower florets, or mixed in a corn, avocado and spring onion salsa. Get the recipe