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Last week while the kami-san was ringing up a customer’s bill, I happened to glance down at the scrawled notepad where she keeps track of a table’s order — a list of all the food and drink consumed.

What color is your miso?

Orders are usually relayed to the kitchen verbally but the young ladies that carry the food to the dining rooms keep track on paper to expedite settling the check. As in any restaurant in any part of the world, waitresses very quickly scribble down an order on this little pad — a little shorthand jot that to anyone’s eyes but the originator’s looks like nothing more than chicken scratch.

So last week when I read without really trying what was noted, and then when I realized I had with little effort just read and understood a previously undecipherable mix of abbreviated Chinese characters, Japanese phonetics and Arabic numerals, that is when I thought, yes, I have made it, I’ve finally arrived. I can read Japanese chicken scratch; I have found the key to the restaurant world and all the people and food in it.

This exaggerated euphoria lasted exactly six minutes. Six delicious minutes, after which the chef came back and asked who had made the miso soup, and why the soup was so thick and just a little too salty (I added too much inaka miso and not enough kyo miso). I was deflated, put back in my place. I was immediate transported from the cultural customs arrivals check-in line back to refugee detainment in Guantanamo Bay.

All in all, this incident served as a good lesson in humility and a reminder of the fragility, but not inapproachability, of food in this country. We blend our own miso, called awase miso (blended miso), as we make the soup in small batches. It is easier to get a tasty miso soup that will complement a hot bowl of rice than to get the same delicious soup day after day by combining unscripted proportions of different miso. But that is exactly what I and many cooks are called upon to do at each meal.

Court cooks and aristocratic priests have been combining awase miso and making miso soup in Japan since the eighth century, when miso is recorded as being first taxed. By the 12th century it was as common and inevitable as cold is in winter. Made by fermenting steamed soybeans and some type of fermented grain for several years in large wooden vats, miso provides a good amount of protein. It may be part of every meal, but the largest portion (and the center around which that meal revolves) is consumed at breakfast. Every home and every mother has her consistent yet distinct miso soup taste. When all else fails, there’s always mom’s miso soup.

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Aka dashi

There are a hundred types of miso in Japan. These miso are identified specifically by the grain used in the koji (starter mash used in fermentation — rice, wheat, barley or soybean) and are defined generally by their color — aka (red) or shiro (white).

With the advent of modern transportation, all types of miso are available and are eaten throughout Japan, but traditionally the kind of fermented soybeans used to make your morning soup was very much dependent on the region in which you lived. Although at home Japanese are generally (and unfortunately) drifting toward lighter, sweeter supermarket- bought miso, at many restaurants you can still savor real provincial miso soups.

In Kansai (western Japan) we historically like our barley-fermented miso very red. Most eateries in the area would be remiss not to serve, in a lacquered and lidded bowl, a piping-hot portion of red miso shiru (soup), which we in Osaka and environs call simply aka dashi. The recipe is simple enough, but must not be followed too carefully.

Miso is fickle. It varies widely in salinity and depth of flavor, so it really must be added to the hot stock until the desired (that is, your desired) taste is achieved. The gu (gu is the stuff in your soup that is not soup, e.g. tofu, scallions, etc.) should be simple, and at many sushi counters a small bowl of aka dashi is served with nothing more than a good shake of powdered sansho (Japanese pepper). You need not use the best dashi when making miso soup; the relatively strong miso taste would overpower too delicate a stock.

800 ml dashi or any good stock
4 tablespoons aka miso
2 scallions finely sliced
1/2 block tofu, cut into medium-size cubes
4 mitsuba leaves, stems removed
1 teaspoon kona zansho (powdered sansho)

1) Warm the dashi and whisk in miso that has been softened in a separate bowl with several tablespoons of the warm dashi, adding only half of the miso at first and then adding more, little by little, to taste. Miso soup should be heated thoroughly, but should never boil.

2) In four individual serving bowls, preferably lidded, arrange scallions, tofu and mitsuba.

3) Just before serving, ladle hot miso soup over the gu and give a good shake of the sansho before replacing the lid. Serves four.

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