Three women stand around a wooden table in a large kitchen. The smell of boiled soybeans fills the room, and only the sound of air being pressed out of a soft pulp breaks the silence.

The women are combining a smooth mash of soybeans together with a rough mixture of kōji rice and salt. This laborious process will result in a paste that, after being left to ferment for a year, will become miso, an essential ingredient in Japanese cuisine that gives its foods a distinctive flavor — from the ubiquitous soup eaten at any meal of the day to ramen and braised vegetables.

Miso is just one type of fermented seasoning that, to a foodie’s delight, can be used to enrich any number of dishes. But the benefits of fermented foods don’t stop at the dinner table.