Story and Photos by Leina Xu
In the city, I most often see miso when I sit down for sushi; every combination meal comes with a complimentary bowl of miso soup. You can also easily find dried miso powders and instant soup sachets, indicating that miso can be a commodity, and a common item in the “international” food section of a grocery store. But miso is more than just a sushi accessory. It has history and life and, when made properly, enormous health benefits. Conveniently enough, you don’t have to go all the way to Japan to find miso with these qualities.
Christian Elwell is the founder and co-owner of South River Miso Company in Conway, Massachusetts, a miso company on a mission. It aims to restore people’s connection with the food they eat, reinforce the idea that food is our best medicine, and to remind us of the relationship and connection that should exist between humans, our food, the ingredients, the land and our environment. I spoke with Christian for a few hours about the story and inspiration for South River Miso; the following quotes are condensed and edited for clarity.
How would you define Miso?
“A complex living food such as miso does not easily lend itself to definition. Years ago, when miso was first introduced to modern day Americans, it was defined as ‘bean paste’. But that is about as dead and unimaginative as can be, and it doesn’t tell us anything about the nature of miso. It is even misleading, because most miso is not made from beans alone.
When we’re talking about food, we’re not talking about something for only the head to digest. We need to eat it, taste it, touch it, see how it settles, and how it affects us. To define it in a word or two would be to limit it and so, I would prefer to describe or characterize miso, rather than define it.
I often talk about miso as a catalyst. Unpasteurized miso is an active food. It actively affects other ingredients with which it is being used, and brings out their flavors, without necessarily bringing attention to itself. You might not know miso is present there in the soup, for example. Yet on its own, it is a very delicious seasoning. Because of its salt content, it can be used in the place of salt as a seasoning.
Miso is made from a combination of cultured grains and beans through a double fermentation process that may take several months or as long as three years in great wooden vats. The resulting substance, a paste with a consistency somewhat like cottage cheese, is called miso.
The fermentation processes, in which mighty enzymes and probiotic micro-organisms are the key players, break down the grains and beans into their elemental forces and release their nutritional benefits and healing properties. The probiotic life that is essential to traditional unpasteurized miso, the complex flavors and nutritional benefits are stabilized and preserved by the presence of salt and delivered directly to the human digestive system, where it helps us to digest and assimilate whatever foods we eat and to ward off harmful influences.
Another good way to characterize miso is to demonstrate it, to let it speak for itself. One of my favorite ways to introduce miso: I’ll cook some oatmeal without salt, and then, while it is still warm, I’ll mix into it a teaspoon of light miso (for instance Sweet White, Chick Pea, or Azuki Bean Miso). Right before your eyes, you’ll see the oatmeal transform, loosen up, and become more liquefied as the enzymes in the miso start to break down the oatmeal. You’ll see from this simple demonstration that miso is a very active force. It’s not static or inert, unless it is pasteurized.”
How were you introduced to miso?
“While I was serving in the Peace Corps in Iran, in 1970, my father died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 51. I was 23, and my life changed dramatically. I went to India for a year, where I became quite ill with hepatitis. I thought I was dying. The life force was just gone; I felt extremely weak. I could barely walk and checked into a Christian missionary clinic, where the remedy was bed rest for 3 weeks, eating very simple, bland foods, meaning rice and vegetables, and then once a day, a tablespoon of some fresh green herbal concoction.
It was an amazing revelation for me at the time, that simple bedrest and eating simple plant foods could allow my body to restore itself to health. It was my first experience of food as medicine. With all the education I had received, there was never any knowledge or awareness communicated about the relationship between the quality of the food we eat every day and our health. My father’s death and my own illness led me eventually to that understanding.
On my way back home to the Boston area, some friends encouraged me to meet Michio Kushi, who was at that time the leading teacher of the international macrobiotic movement, whose center was based in Boston.
Macrobiotics is a teaching that first came to the west from Japan in the 1960’s and the 70’s as a spiritual transmission, based on ancient Chinese and Japanese wisdom traditions for achieving balance including the alchemical science of complementary opposites, “yin and yang”. An outer expression of that ancient wisdom was the ever changing practical use of food as medicine. Part of the macrobiotic teaching was instruction in the fine art of cooking and other natural healing modalities that empower us to take responsibility for our own health and well-being.
In that cosmology coming out of Japan, miso was a revered food, highly regarded within that context as having great potential as a medicinal food. That’s where I first learned about miso, and first experienced miso.”
Why were these teachers coming to America?
“Japanese teachers were experiencing the degeneration of their own wisdom traditions in Japan. After World War Two, many American food habits and foods of modern commerce were adopted wholesale, with little discrimination. Many Japanese elders were concerned about the demise of their cultural heritage.
Teachers came to the west with a mission to transmit the gifts and the wisdom of their ancient culture to us, in the west, who were clueless about such things as the relationship between food and health. They carried a wisdom and knowledge that had been lost to us, and which they did not want to see die out. They knew its value, and they saw how much we in the west were —and still are— in need of such wisdom and knowledge.”
So if Miso is traditionally from Japan, and you are now making it in New England, how would you describe the culture of your product?
“Even though we use Aspergillus spores from Japan to make the cultured grain (called koji), and, even though we use organic ingredients that come from all over, the signature of our product really comes from the traditional process that we follow. Our shop and equipment is simply set up to replicate the main features of the traditional miso making process of pre-industrial Japan. These features include cooking with wood fire, hand processing in small batches, and fermentation in wooden vats. Even in Japan the traditional ways are no longer followed for commercial production.
Another thing about indigenous cultured or fermented foods: they were very much related to the locality in which they were made. For instance, if we’re talking cheese, the kind of milk, the type and breed of animal, what pastures those animals were grazing on, what cultures were cultivated in those families and communities of cheese makers. All of those things give an indigenous cultured food product a real local, identity.
Miso itself is in the process of transition, of gaining new cultural identities, now in the west. Eventually we will cultivate and create our own spores here, rather than getting them from Japan. That will be an important step towards localizing and grounding miso into New England. Because when you start doing that, it’s not only the beans and the grains, but the invisible cultures, the micro-organisms, which evolve uniquely in relation to time and place. But that may take some generations.”
Are you striving for a completely locally sourced miso? If so, why?
“One of the tenants of a holistic approach to greater balance and well–being for all is to source food locally. That is a long range goal, which will take some time to realize. For example, presently we use about 35,000 pounds of rice a year in our work with miso. We cannot obtain that rice from New England. Not yet! So that is a logistical issue. Eventually, local rice in significant quantities may be grown in the northeast. Now, already, a farming friend has grown 14,000 pounds of rice last year in New Jersey.
I myself have been growing rice here in Conway for over 30 years on a small scale. Saving the seed year to year, the rice has fully acclimated to our climatic conditions. Personally, I’m not interested in growing acres and acres of rice or soybeans for instance. I’m more interested in developing a close connection with the plant, getting to know its stages and cycles of growth. You can do that most effectively on a very small scale. I grow about 100 pounds of rice a year in a very small paddy. When we make rice miso, we add a few grains of this rice into the mix, as a gesture towards what will be possible in the future.
Our relationship with plants nowadays, especially within the commercial food world and industrial agriculture, is that plants are commodities, whereas the purpose and value of food is to nourish and to heal.In the industrial food system, we’ve lost our relationship with the plants; by extension we have lost our intimate relationship with the environment as well, and with our common home, the planet Earth, on which we all depend as human beings.
When you grow the rice, when you take a single grain of rice and plant it and watch it grow from year to year, living through the whole life cycle of the plant, you learn that from one single grain you get 500-1000 grains in one season, and you develop an intimacy with the plant that changes your relationship with food forever. That’s a relationship I am interested in nurturing for myself and for others.”
“Miso happens to be in a regal class of fermented foods, because it is made from a combination of grains and beans. Together through lengthy fermentation these combine to create a very high quality source of plant protein in miso. The grain comes from the grass family, and the bean comes from the legume family. These two plant families are responsible for the sustenance of the human race, whether it comes to us directly or indirectly through the animals. Both the grass family and the legume family are at the foundation of human civilization as we know it.
“Miso is worthy of being in every household, because it’s such a health promoting, health giving food. It is certainly worthy of being promoted, and worthy of being understood. And it’s worthy of being included on the healing menu for human evolution going forward.”
Organic South River Miso can be found at grocery stores as large and accessible as Whole Foods. While we spoke a lot about the negative aspects of food commodification, Christian is happy that his product is available in a large scale grocery store, as it helps make his product more accessible to people who may never have discovered it otherwise.
Christian insisted one of the best ways to introduce miso to someone is to have them taste it. If you get a chance to buy some South River Miso, Christian suggested two great, simple recipes to open up the world of miso for you:
A Cucumber Miso Snack
- Peel a fresh organic cucumber and cut it into slices about half to three quarters of an inch thick.
- On top of each slice, add a little dollop of chickpea miso (or any other light variety, e.g. Sweet White or Azuki Bean Miso).
Christian writes, “The really juicy and watery cucumber combined with the mild salty taste and ‘blossom’ of the chickpea miso is a refreshing snack and stunning taste experience”
A Simple Variation of Miso Soup
- Wakame (Edible Seaweed)
- Onion (Optional)
- Dandelion Greens (Or other fresh greens)
- Soak some wakame leaves in 2-3 cups of water overnight, cover, and store in the fridge (this can be used throughout the week).
- Pour some of the soaking water into a small cooking pot along with some of the soaked wakame; bring to a boil.
- Add a clove of garlic, peeled, crushed, or chopped. Optional: add some chopped onion as well.
- Add one or two leaves of dandelion greens, parsley, or other fresh greens, washed and finely chopped. Add some peeled and grated ginger as well.
- Cook for no more than 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, transfer the soup to your bowl and add miso according to taste, and enjoy! (It is important to add the miso to the soup after the soup is finished cooking. If you boil the miso it can kill the beneficial probiotics.)
The type and volume of miso to add at this point is up to personal taste. Christian stirred in a “heaping teaspoon” of Garlic Red Pepper Miso that morning, when he made this soup for himself for breakfast.
You should add enough miso so that the soup does not taste bland. On the other hand, you should not add so much miso that the salty taste overpowers all the other ingredients.
You don’t need to measure anything. Just do it!