Miso, the fermented soybean paste, is a Japanese culinary staple. Sano Miso, headquartered in Kameido, Koto-ku is the biggest miso store in Tokyo, selling around 70 different varieties from all over the country. A recent addition is a soup bar where patrons may select from a range of miso and soup ingredients to eat in a cafe area. The shop also has shelves packed with an astonishing range of other products: pickles, umeboshi (pickled plums), seaweed, amazake (a sweet, non-alcoholic drink made from rice), smoked fish, seasonings, sauces and condiments. Third generation owner Masaaki Sano calls it “an amusement park of miso”.
Today we’re in Sunamachi Ginza, in the heart of Koto-ku, to visit the Sano Miso Sunamachi Ginza Shop. Once one of the busiest shopping streets in the city, Sano Miso has been purveying its wares here since 1965.
The manager, Mr. Inoue and Ms. Motoyama, from the flagship store, are our guides. They are equally as passionate about the salty mainstay of Japanese soup as their boss, introducing both their own favourites and a new product.
“This is our top-seller, the Kogane,” says Mr. Inoue, lifting the thick, clear plastic lid on a mound of dark brown miso. “It’s unusual because it’s made from mochi rice”. Miso is usually made from a starter culture called koji, soybeans and a grain (rice, barley or rye, for example). Using the highly glutinous, starchy mochi rice, which is more commonly seen at New Years as an ingredient in mochi (pounded rice cakes), is quite rare. The name Kogane (金亀子) pays tribute to Sano Miso’s location in Kameido–literally turtle door in Japanese (亀戸) by combining the characters for gold (金) and turtle (亀).
The helpful notes suggest matching it with shijimi (small brackish-water clams), deep fried tofu skin or the leafy green vegetable mitsuba (also known as wild Japanese parsley, Cryptotaenia japonica). Mixed with cream cheese, it also makes a great dip for vegetable sticks.
Akita Miyuki (Miyuki means deep snow) comes from the northern prefecture of Akita, famous for its beautiful women, clear water, delicious rice and heavy snowfalls in winter. The miso is made with the renowned Akita Komachi rice and uses more than double the amount in other kinds of miso. This releases a natural sweetness into the paste, creating a rounded, mild flavour that is soft on the palate. Ms. Motoyama recommends this miso as suitable for eating with raw vegetables or mixed with olive oil and vinegar as a dressing.
At the other end of the scale is Tokyo Miso from Edogawa-ku, eastern neighbour of Koto-ku. It’s a white miso made with three times the usual rice koji starter, which creates a sweet, slightly vinegary, yet mild flavour. This miso is versatile, equally at home in soup or a variety of fares, especially pickles or fish dishes. The salt content is reduced by 30%.
Miso from Shinshu (Nagano Prefecture) is the standard miso. This is the popular Temae Miso, number 13. It’s made with rice. Nagano miso is aged only a few weeks, resulting in a light beige colour and a mild, creamy taste, neither too salty nor strong. It’s a little sweet but very light and refreshing. It can be used to make a very nice ham and mixed vegetable soup with cabbage, onions, carrots and corn.
This powerful, intensely flavoured miso is from Kaga in Ishikawa Prefecture on the Sea of Japan. It has the homemade look of hand-ground beans and the dark colour of a long-aged miso. Strongly flavoured ingredients such as spinach, hamaguri (common orient clams or hard clams), seafood, komatsuna (Japanese mustard spinach) and the like are its best matches.
Shopping for miso at Sano Miso is easy. The boards located next to each display case show the price, give a brief description of the flavour, sweetness level and strength, as well as a pictorial guide to the ingredients that go best with each miso. The salt content is also clearly shown.
Miso may be the mainstay of Sano Miso but the shop is also home to a staggering array of other healthy fermented products.
Nankobai ume (pickled plums) from Wakayama Prefecture are the most prized in the country. They are a little salty and sour but not overwhelmingly so. They are the choice of connoisseurs.
The latest addition to the Sano Miso range of products is the Kurawan series of four freeze-dried soups that allow customers to enjoy top quality miso soup anywhere. Just add boiling water and stir! The four types are: Jindai red miso with pork and vegetables; Kogane miso with fried tofu skin, Japanese leeks and seaweed; Jindai white miso with spinach, fried tofu skin, Japanese leeks; and carrots and a Kyoto Gion red miso with nameko mushrooms and seitan (wheat gluten).
The Kurawan series makes a great souvenir as they can be stored for years and eaten when desired. There really is nothing like a hearty pork tonjiru soup on a cold winter’s day or a refreshing bowl with colourful vegetables in the heat of summer.
The expert staff is always ready to advise customers. The health properties of fermented food are becoming more widely understood as research develops. If you’re visiting the Sunamachi area, why not drop in and treat yourself to some of the finest fermented foods Japan has to offer.
Story and Photos by Stephen Spencer