Gathering to make a savory
Japanese condiment provides a
window on a traditional food
culture and a lesson in patience.
By Jordan Champagne
Photography by Margaux Gibbons
About 12 years ago I had my first introduction to making miso. I was working with a local organic farm and the farmer’s wife was Japanese. She invited me to join a gathering where everyone was going to make their year’s supply of miso—the flavorful and nutritious Japanese seasoning paste made from long-fermented beans and used in soups, dressings and sauces.
I was very interested in food preservation of all kinds, but this intimate gathering of friends intimidated me. Toku assured me that it would be casual and that for most of the people there, it would be their first time making miso, too.
I was not sure what vessel I should bring as I was only told that it should be of food grade, meaning safe for food. I settled on a 5- gallon ceramic crock as miso is one of my favorite condiments and I knew I wanted to make a lot. I can be quite clumsy in contrast to the extremely graceful Japanese culture, and I remember feeling particularly so while walking up the stairs to her house carrying the heavy crock, my baby strapped on my back.
But Toku greeted me at the door with a warm smile and helping hands that put me at ease. Inside, there was a bustle of women, beans, koji—grain or beans that have been treated with a fermentation culture—grinders and salt. Toku’s best friend, Chikurin, was at the grinder, leading the group of novice miso makers.
Communities all over the world gather together for large food projects. I think of the large community bread ovens of Europe or the groups of aunties in the kitchen preserving away over boiling kettles in the heat of the summer wherever fruits and vegetables are found in abundance. Food has a remarkable way of bringing sustenance into our lives on so many levels, and the community connection it creates is a very strong benefit—and the reason I remain working with food. In Toku’s family it was her grandmother who made miso when she was growing up in Japan.
“My grandmother used to make miso with the neighbor lady,” she says. “She made a big fire outside by the neighborhood shrine right across from our house. She cooked the beans there with wood in a large pot.”
The shrine was Shinto, and Toku described in detail the red entrance and brick walkway to the altar. I found it interesting that Toku’s grandmother made her miso there, and she remarked that no one else did this.
“My grandmother’s miso was the best,” Toku says with a beaming smile.
The gathering I was invited to was a group of 10 Japanese women. They wanted to engage in what was for them a lost art of their culture’s food traditions.
One detail that had an impact on me was that some of the women were using 5-gallon plastic buckets as their vessels. It really surprised me and yet it also made me feel at ease.
It made me realize that trying to blend traditional ways into our modern lives isn’t always going to bring results that match our romantic notions of traditional cultures and their food preservation practices. On the one hand, the plastic 5-gallon bucket was more practical as it was light, had a built-in handle and presented no risk of breaking. But somehow, fermenting miso in a plastic bucket also seemed a contradiction to my sensibilities and I wondered if, given the choice, Japanese grandmothers would use a plastic bucket instead of a ceramic crock. My guess is, due to the convenience, most of them probably would. Sometimes it is not the vessel that counts, but the love it contains!
Jordan Champagne is the co-owner and founder of Happy Girl Kitchen Co. She has a passion for preserving the local, organic harvest and loves sharing her secrets at the workshops she teaches across the region. Miso making is among the many techniques she teaches.