A nation’s borders used to contain not just its land, but its people, its culture and its products. Got a craving for Wiener Schnitzel? Get ready for a long boat ride, sweet cheeks.
These days, not so much. I have good friends from Bosnia, Mexico, France, Britain living and playing beside me in New York State; my cousins have flitted in and out of Honduras, Nicaragua and various countries in West Africa for years on various work and school adventures, and I’ve gone to and fro between Europe and America a few times myself.
Yoga, acupuncture and tofu, once the Holy Trinity of back-to-the-land hippies, is now de rigueur for Connecticut soccer moms. (What do you mean you don’t do the Vrschiknasana as soon as you wake up? How do you expect to unclog your chakras?)
We’re a mobile, adaptive species, quick to adopt cool, shiny products that improve our lives.
But despite everyone’s exposure to … everyone and everything else, there are still certain staples in Middle Eastern, African and Asian cuisine that I can’t quite incorporate into my ho-hum average Wednesday at home diet, and I know I’m not alone. I’ll eat cassava when I go out for Nigerian food, and I could live on hummus, tahini and flatbreads, but I’m strangely unwilling to replicate classic non-Western dishes at home – probably because my few attempts to make them from scratch have been so wildly unsuccessful, not to mention expensive, since I have to buy almost every ingredient (and then watch it molder in my pantry after one use).
Premade hummus is heavenly, and dirt cheap; why go through the bother of soaking chick peas, squeezing lemons, mincing garlic and pouring in pints of oil for, what, inevitably, is never as smooth and flavorful as the $2 tub sitting in my grocery store, just waiting for me?
Am I suffering from the foodie version of NIMBY? I love going out for shrimp sushi, but make it at home? Are you mad?
And then there’s miso. A mystery ingredient if there ever was one.
Every time I see a recipe or dish involving the stuff, I’m fascinated, yet vaguely troubled. I’ve eaten miso countless times. It’s delicious, savory, slightly sweet, overpoweringly intense, waftingly subtle, a riddle rolling around the tip of my tongue… Yes, but what is it, exactly?
To be precise, miso is a fermented Japanese paste made by injecting cooked soybeans with a koji, or mold, grown in either a barley, rice or soybean base. The tweaked beans are then left to ferment for days before being ground into a concentrated, luscious, spreadable delicacy beloved the world over.
Miso has the consistency of a thinned down nut butter, and its color, flavor, texture and level of sophistication is as varied and titillating as The Situation’s social calendar.
There’s the Peter Pan of miso (delicious in its own right, of course) and the MaraNatha of miso as well (hold the Ritz crackers please). But no matter how lowly or elevated, it tastes prominently of salt and butter, with a wine-y tang.
Not surprisingly, miso is used in almost every dish that lands on the typical Japanese table, from breakfast to dessert, in soup and on nuts. But wait. Since it isn’t a typical Western staple, miso manages to be good for you, in addition to being delish. Although fairly high in sodium, it boasts sky-high levels of zinc, manganese, copper and a decent kick of protein, fiber and phosphorus. And there are only 25 calories per TBSP (nut butters have about 100 calories per TBSP).
As part of my New Year’s pledge to stretch myself and try new things, I left the grocery store with a bottle of miso paste wedged under my oatmeal, kale and chicken thighs this week. I stared at it for several days, wondering what on earth I should do with it; the miso mocked me, silently.
Finally, I decided to utilize it in its most basic, naked form: I made a simple soup starring the stuff. Warming, hearty, light, packed with nutrition. Perfect for a snowy day when your wet dog wants to sit on your lap and cuddle.