When I woke up earlier this week, my stomach was churning, as if a snake was uncoiling in my belly. While it’s not an unfamiliar feeling as of late, that morning's feeling of nausea and tummy troubles certainly was. Whether the uncomfortable sensation is caused by nerves, anxiety, too many cocktails the night before or lately, a tiny human growing inside me, it always remains the same. And I hate it. But what's a food journalist to do when 50 percent of her mornings involve wanting to curl in a ball until the feeling goes away? In short, I turn to miso for breakfast.
With each hot, salty sip, the mug of umami-rich miso clutched in my cold hands both warms me on this cool November morning and helps to soothe the strange bubbling in my stomach. It's so comforting, even if I didn't have butterflies in my tummy I would probably still be drinking a mug of the stuff. And I am not alone, in Japan they serve this mild soup morning, noon, and night.
While we think of miso as a Japanese food, it actually hails from China. However, it made its way across the border and has been used in Japan since at least the 8th century—though at that time, it was a dietary flourish of the rich and the religious, as most imported foods were. Commoners weren't allowed to touch the stuff until the 12th century, and only then after miso started being made into a restorative soup drunk by the samurai.
During the Endo Period, between the 17th and 19th centuries, frugality reigned in Japan and residents were encouraged to live a modest lifestyle due to an austerity ordinance dictated by the Tokugawa shogunate. Of course, like many restricted goods, the wealthier folk found a way to seek out high-quality miso that tasted finer, more complex and downright better than the peasants’ broth. As the popularity of miso grew, soon everyone had a taste for the stuff. Shops selling miso also flourished at the time, solidifying a trend that persists today and goes beyond that little cup of soup you get before sushi.
But what is miso exactly? Simply put, it's fermented soybeans that are mashed into a paste. Many types of miso exist, from white shinsyu miso to dark red edo ama miso. Each has a distinct flavor profile, and usually the paler the color, the lighter the taste. You can find the paste in Asian grocery stores and most natural food shops. Stir it into soup, smear it on toast for an umami breakfast bomb, or use it to make a sauce for just about anything. No matter how you choose to play with this ingredient, the health benefits are many. With protein, Vitamins E, B12 and B2, fatty acid, dietary fiber, and more minerals, it's pretty good for you—which might be why it works so well to soothe an upset stomach. In fact, it’s widely believed to soothe gastric disorders in general, so there you go.
I feel like I am living proof to the magic of miso—Olivia Wilde and me, that is. Actually, the actress and I have a lot in common (save for the brunette, skinny and famous parts). It was an article in Food & Wine where she talked about waking up queasy and using miso to settle her stomach that got me thinking about my own ailments and what to do about it. Hey, if Olivia Wilde can use miso to feel better, so can I.
The best part is you can spruce your miso up in so many ways. If you're really feeling sick, maybe just swirl in a tablespoon of the stuff and let it dissolve in boiling water for a simple soup. To help a hangover, crack an egg into the bubbling broth, stir to break it apart and once it's cooked, sip away. A heartier breakfast miso can have bits of tofu, egg, some shredded carrot, strips of kale, leftover rice and just about anything else you might crave. Even if that’s just a moment of calm.