Traditionally in Japan, miso shiru soup represented the taste of home cooking. Each family would have its own recipes, prepared using local or homemade miso but served up with favorite combinations of ingredients. Vegetables, seafood, mushrooms, tofu, seaweed and even small quantities of meat all find their place in miso soup, according to taste and seasonal availability.
Countless cookbooks have been published catering to this deep-seated love of miso shiru. But we prefer to gain our inspiration from the menus of specialist restaurants. Whenever we are in Ikebukuro, we make a point of dropping by the food section of Tobu department store — not just because it is one of the largest in the city (with an excellent sake section) but also to visit Misogen.
This is a small counter run by a miso retailer that serves freshly prepared miso shiru, either on its own or along with simple rice dishes. There are four or five styles of soup to choose from; our favorite is prepared with fresh yuba (soy-milk skin), mushrooms, spinach greens and sliced okra. Simple, warming, revivifying and with no artificial additives, it calms and satisfies the parts that Starbucks can never reach.
Tobu Department Store B2F, 1-1-25 Ikebukuro, Nerima-ku; open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. (Sun. till 8 p.m.); (03) 5960-3881. There are also branches in Seibu Ikebukuro store ( 5949-5010) and the Lazona Kawasaki mall ( 874-8108).
Thanks to the depth of savory flavor components — in Japanese the word umami is often used — hot miso shiru is sometimes offered as an appetizer at restaurants and even drinking establishments. At the chic, upmarket Bar 1chido (pronounced “Ichido”) near Hiroo, miso shiru is an essential item on the menu alongside the aged rums and single-malt whiskies.
It’s also become a selling point in and of itself at an izakaya (Japanese-style pub) called Misoshiruya (literally, Miso Soup House), which recently opened a branch among the ritzy boutiques of Ginza. Clearly a trend is brewing, so we had to check it out.
Like so many bars in this high-color district, Misoshiruya is tucked away in the basement of a building. But any anxiety that it might be exclusive and expensive was allayed by the sidewalk signboard at the entrance and the stream of young (and casually dressed) people making their way down the narrow stairs.
Sliding open the heavy door, we found ourselves in a compact dining room that is modern, cheerful and idiosyncratic. The furniture is simple and the only decor is the display of colorful labels on the magnums of sake, shochu and umeshu along the counter that runs the length of the narrow, semi-open kitchen.
Miso features prominently throughout the menu. We started with a selection of vegetable sticks with dips of light-orange miso and of basil in olive oil. We followed this with a carpaccio of thinly sliced scallops in a savory sauce that was richly flavored with uni (sea urchin) and miso, and garnished with gleaming-fresh ikura (salmon roe) like jewels.
There are plenty of other izakaya staples, from agedashi-dofu, deep-fried tofu squares topped with a rich sauce of buckwheat grain and ground meat, to yaki-onigiri, triangular rice balls smeared with miso and grilled crisp.
And then there is the miso soup. There are 45 varieties to choose from, ranging from simple and classic (featuring tofu and wakame seaweed in a broth seasoned with yellow Shinshu miso) to nouveau style (avocado and shrimp with Hatcho miso) to the luxurious (“Wild Tiger” prawns in a blend of miso). It’s a bit of a gimmick, really — especially since the dashi depends too heavily on artificial seasonings (read: MSG) — but apart from the “Wild Tiger,” little on the menu is over ¥1,000, so there’s not much damage to the pocket.
The miso theme even extends to the drinks list. We had to try the microbrewed beer from Aichi Prefecture that incorporates Hatcho miso. Although the flavor was not especially distinctive, it certainly scored big in terms of novelty value.
A similar quirkiness inhabits the sake selection. If the name Mohikan Musume (Mohican Girl) were not enough to pique the interest, the graphics — a woman in kimono sporting a punk hairdo against a rising-sun background — demanded our attention. In fact this sake, produced in Aomori Prefecture, turned out to be an orthodox and enjoyable junmaishu sake. But the idiosyncratic label (in summer the same brewery produces a sake called Bikini Musume) is an indication of the informal, easy-going style of the friendly staff at Misoshiruya.
1chido is at 4-13-8 Minami-Azabu, Minato-ku; open daily 7 p.m.-5 a.m.; (03) 5449-1414; r.gnavi.co.jp/b054102/ Misoshiruya is in the KN Building, B1, 6-4-12 Ginza, Chuo-ku; open 6 p.m.-5 a.m. (Sat. and holidays 5-11 p.m.; closed Sun.); illustrated Japanese menu (some English spoken); major credit cards accepted; reservations advisable; (03) 5568-5300; r.gnavi.co.jp/g439816/