Definition: Miso is made from fermented soybeans, which doesn't sound particularly delicious, but keep reading! Miso is a thick paste-like substance with a brownish and sometimes reddish color and tastes extremely salty and tangy on its own. Take a little bite if you're curious, but miso is not meant to be eaten plain out of the container like hummus!
While the most common use of miso is in Japanese-style miso soup recipes and other Japanese food dishes, miso also adds a unique burst of flavor to sauces and marinades, baked tofu, or vegetable dishes. I like to use miso to make Asian-style salad dressings, such as this gingery miso salad dressing recipe. I've also known a few people who like to spread miso on their morning toast along with a little vegan margarine.
See also: Vegetarian Japanese foods
Besides soy, miso can also be made from barley, rice, or other grains. These types of miso will vary slightly in color and taste, though can be used interchangeably in recipes. In general, the darker the color of the miso, the stronger the taste, so if you find the taste unpleasant, look for white or yellow miso rather than brown or barley miso. Traditional Japanese miso made from soy is gluten-free, but miso made from these other grains may not be.
Look for miso in plastic tubs in Asian grocery stores or the refrigerator section of your local health food store. Most grocery stores stock a brand of miso which comes in white plastic tubs near the vegan margarine, refrigerated tofu, dairy substitutes and vegetarian meat substitutes, and at Asian grocers, you may be able to find a larger variety of types of miso, some of which might come in a sealed plastic bag, or a clear plastic tub, rather than the white plastic tub you'll usually see and larger grocery stores.
When shopping for miso, you should know that it's also sometimes called "miso paste" or "soybean paste".
Cooking with Miso
Wondering what to do with miso, other than miso soup? I have a few friends who like to spread miso on their toast in the mornings. Personally, I think it's a bit salty for that and I much prefer a bit of vegan margarine and a shake of nutritional yeast on my toast but give it a try and see if you like it.
Here are a few recipes which use miso as a key ingredient: