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What is miso - doenjiang, dajiang, taucheo...

It is important to understand what is miso - in its original form. Because only then will we enjoy the many health benefits of miso, by choosing good quality miso and using it correctly.

Thanks to the worldwide popularity of Japanese foods, many people today roughly know what miso is - the thing that makes Japanese miso soup.

But this is not a very useful or enlightening way of understanding what is miso and how to use it. Because miso today comes in many forms - as miso soup powder, as pasteurised miso sold in sealed plastic packets, and so on.

Some of these modern miso products may actually be more harmful than healthy. Their goodness would have been destroyed and they often come with chemical additives like monosodium glutamate or MSG, which is toxic to the brain.

Even if you take miso soup in a Japanese restaurant, especially if it is a cheap restaurant, you may not be getting the real thing. You have good chances of over-loading yourself with salt and MSG.

Understanding exactly what is miso will also open you to a whole new world of similar products. Miso is not just a Japanese food, but one of many similar foods eaten throughout East Asia.

The Koreans have a similar product called Doenjang. The Chinese have Dajiang, Huangjiang (yellow bean paste) and other similar products with various names. In Southern China and Southeast Asia, the paste is more watery and called taucheo or tauco. And so on.

Miso also belongs to the same class as other fermented soy products like soy sauce and natto - which are, again widely consumed throughout East Asia. These are all highly beneficial foods - provided you get good quality products made the traditional way and provided you use them correctly.

Health benefits of miso

Before we consider excatly what is miso in its traditional form, let's take a brief look at its health benefits. What is miso good for?

Cancer and radiation, however, were not issues of concern when people in Japan and the rest of east Asia began eating miso and similar products thousands of years ago. They probably did so for more practical reasons, like nutrition and health, even though they might not have known the science behind it.

Many people associate friendly bacteria with milk products like yoghurt or cultured milk drinks like Yakult and Vitagen. But being milk products, they come with the many health problems associated with milk, particularly with pasteurised, homogenised and otherwise processed dairy foods. For more details, read The Harm of Milk.

If you know what is miso made of, however, you will appreciate a crucial difference. Miso and soy sauce are salt-fermented foods while natto, although fermented without salt, is normally eaten with soy sauce.

Some people may consider this a "bad" thing, since there is a common misperception that salt is harmful to health. But salt is healthy provided it is natural sea salt - and hence it is important to buy miso and soy sauce made with natural sea salt rather than refined salt.

Some health authorities warn that miso is high in salt / sodium and could cause high blood pressure. However, a study of people who follow a macrobiotic diet, conducted by a Harvard researcher during the 1980s, found that such people actually have healthy blood pressure levels - about 10 points below the national average - despite eating a rather salty diet flavoured with miso and soy sauce.

The reason could well be that macrobiotic people fully understand what is miso and how to use it correctly. They use only miso made with natural sea salt.

A superior salty seasoning

This brings us to another way of looking at what is miso and soy sauce. They are alternatives to salt. And as salty seasonings, they are excellent ways of bringing out the flavour of foods.

Followers of macrobiotics believe that using miso or soy sauce to flavour foods is better than using salt directly. Because in salt-fermented products like miso and soy sauce, the salt molecules are chelated or combined with food molecules. Taking salt this way is said to have a less harmful effect on the body than using salt on its own.

Also, less salt is ultimately consumed because less salt is needed to flavour foods. If you add, say, one or two tablespoonfuls of miso or soy sauce to a dish, most of it is soybeans or water anyway. Depending on the variety or miso, the salt content may range from about 5 percent to 15 percent. If you prepare your own miso soup, you are not supposed to make it overly salty anyway.

As a bonus, miso and soy sauce impart more complex flavours to food, compared with plain salt. They make your food taste more interesting.

So what is miso?

Our discussions about the health benefits of miso gives some vital clues about exactly what is miso, how to choose the real good stuff from modern fakes and how to use miso correctly.

Miso is a salt fermented food, made from soy and/or grains, that is rich in nutrients and friendly bacteria and will impart important health benefits.

With this understanding about what is miso we can conclude that:

The above are the basic guidelines for choosing and using miso. Part II of this article on what is miso will examine the different types of miso and how to use them in preparing miso soup and other dishes.

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