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The Japanese Table / Miso soup losing importance in modern meals

Yomiuri Shimbun photo, in cooperation with Tokyo Gas Co.

A bowl of simple miso soup

By Yukako Fukushi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterThis series discusses the present and future of washoku traditional Japanese cuisine. In this installment, we investigate the present conditions of the dining table.

The basic Japanese home-cooked meal used to comprise a bowl of rice and a bowl of soup, most often miso, combined with one or more other dishes. However, more and more people think they can do without miso soup.

“Even when I lived in my family home, miso soup was not always part of the meal. I never took it for granted that there should be miso soup,” recalled a 50-year-old homemaker in Sanjo, Niigata Prefecture. After getting married in her 20s, she decided to cook rice for dinner and prepare meat or seafood dishes to go with the rice. Yet she did not think it necessary to add miso soup to every meal.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Students of Aomori University of Health and Welfare recommend miso soup with various ingredients. The one on the left features salmon and soy milk, while the one on the right is curry flavored and popular with children.

“If you feel thirsty when eating fish or meat, then you can sip mugicha barley tea. My husband also says he’s OK without [miso soup],” she said. “But these days, I’m rediscovering how delicious miso soup actually is.”

In surveys conducted by Tokyo Gas Co.’s Urban Life Research Institute, nearly 80 percent of respondents said they wanted to have miso soup at least once every day in 1990. The percentage dropped to barely 60 percent in 2017. The declining trend was seen in every age group, from those in their 20s to those in their 70s or older.

“Miso soup used to hold a very important place in Japanese meals. Since it accompanied cooked rice, the center of washoku, some people even called it omio-tsuke [omio is an extremely high honorific, and tsuke means accompanying],” said cooking researcher Kazuko Goto, deputy chair of the Washoku Association of Japan.

Even after Western cuisine spread in the country beginning in the Meiji era (1868-1912), people accepted it in the framework of a very Japanese menu — combining Western dishes with rice and miso soup.

In the 1960s and ’70s, however, it was recognized that excessive salt intake was a major reason for strokes being the top cause of death for Japanese at that time.

“Cutting back on miso soup spread among people as an easy-to-understand measure to reduce salt intake,” said Yoshio Uehara, a professor of Kyoritsu Women’s University.

According to government recommendations, daily salt consumption should be less than 8 grams for men and less than 7 grams for women. A bowl of miso soup contains about 1.5 grams of salt.

“Miso is fermented food, and miso soup contains various kinds of nutrition,” Uehara said. “It’s a pity it’s so undervalued.”

Moreover, various types of mealtime drinks have become available. In 1979, Tokyo-based major beverage company Ito En Ltd. began to sell oolong tea, recommending it as a good accompaniment for greasy food. As the Chinese tea proved very popular, canned green tea products also hit the market. Now green tea and barley tea are expanding their markets as all-year beverages.

“Traditionally, water and tea were not part of a washoku meal. When eating washoku, one should eat rice, miso soup and other dishes alternately, which should make the whole meal more delicious,” Goto said. “I presume the basic style for eating washoku is falling apart, and people now have their meals with water or tea as refreshments, but not miso soup.”

Make it more filling

Recently, there have been moves to cook miso soup with a lot of ingredients and make it more of a main dish.

Aomori University of Health and Welfare is encouraging its students to have a bowl of miso soup with many ingredients for breakfast. The university, nearly half of whose students are non-Aomori Prefecture natives, began the campaign after finding out many were anemic because they don’t cook on their own and therefore often skip breakfast.

The university is introducing simple miso soup recipes its students have developed by using stock sachets made with local seafood and vegetables. These dashi products are recommended by the prefecture as part of its drive to reduce salt intake.

The students themselves are boosting the campaign by sharing the recipes at on-campus events. They also serve miso soup to elderly people in the community and cook it with children of single-parent households.

Tomoko Ono, an associate professor of the faculty of health sciences at the university, is hopeful for the campaign.

“If you eat at least a bowl of rice and miso soup with lots of ingredients, then you can get balanced nutrition,” she said. “I hope it will give people a chance to learn good things about miso soup.”

Simple miso soup

Miso soup can be cooked with umami flavor from vegetables and bacon when you have no dashi soup stock, which is usually made from dried kombu or bonito.

Ingredients (serves 2):

100 grams cabbage

6 cherry tomatoes

1 bacon slice

300cc water

1 tbsp miso

Directions:

1. Chop cabbage roughly, remove stems from cherry tomatoes and cut bacon into 1-centimeter-wide pieces.

2. Put the above ingredients and water in a pot and heat. When the vegetables have softened, stir in miso and turn off the heat.

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