Despite different beliefs and lack of sources, it is assumed that Japanese miso paste has been transmitted from China or Korea around the 6th century A.D. First miso used the technique of forming balls of mashed soybean to attract wild mold spores – a method popular in farmhouse production of miso for many centuries after.
The first evidence of the cultivation of soybean comes from around 7600 years ago in China. It is commonly accepted that the first predecessor of miso paste was Chinese chiang, dating over 2500 years ago. The evidence of the first fermented black soybean paste, in a form of douchi, also comes from the regions of China and is dated for 90BCE. According to some archaeologists, there is an evidence proving that the practice miso-making begun in northeast provinces of Japan, rather than China or Korea. The exact origins and date of what nowadays is known as miso are unclear. Nevertheless, the further history of this amino paste took place in Japan over the next centuries.
Initially, miso paste was made by Buddhist priests for the elites of Japan. In 701 Japanese Emperor established the Bureau for the Regulation of Production, Trade, and Taxation of Hishio and Miso. This institution allowed to control early production and sales of miso. Another reference to miso appeared in documents presenting taxes paid on different food items (including miso) from 730 A.D.
First documented production
Only 200 years later the modern word “miso” firstly appeared in a history book by Ogura Yoshiyuki, published at the beginning of the 10th century. The first documentation of the production process was shown in 927 A.D. in an old book of compiled law codes. Around that time, the same author, Engi Shiki, managed to collect a record of national shops and miso producers, counting for over 80 establishments. This showed that by the 10th-century miso was already a staple food item, consumed in the whole country. Different types of miso were produced not only in the capital city but also in the countryside, often caring names of the areas where they were made (ex. gomi miso, koshu miso).
The spread of Buddhism and beliefs in attaining enlightenment by modest and simple living contributed to a growth in popularity for salt-fermented products and miso. A healthy diet, including everyday consumption of miso soup with tofu and vegetables, became a standard way of living. Big vats of miso, stored in every farmhouse, served as lifesavers during times of famine.
Miso becomes a common good
Around the 15th century, miso varieties previously perceived as luxurious started becoming more common and widely available for regular people. In the Edo Period (16th-19th century) the demand for miso couldn’t be met by the producers. During this long period of peace and stability, large miso maker factories dominated the national market. Small-scale producers were discouraged from expansion by monopolistic prices and difficulties to deliver the product to the cities with poor infrastructure in the country. Latter urbanization helped to speed up the commercialization process and many cities developed their local varieties of miso.
First taxonomy of koji
In the period between the 17th to 19th centuries, due to the isolation of the country, the advancements in science, inventions, and improvements in technology from the Western world have been unnoticed by the Japanese. Until the late 19th century Japanese producers were still unaware of the microbial dynamics, the existence of enzymes, and the basic nature of fermentation. European scientists brought to Japan as new professors at state colleges enthusiastically studied miso and other fermented foods. In 1884 the Polish taxonomist for the first time gave koji mold its present name – Aspergillus oryzae. The early 1900s was a period with several articles and books being published in English and German, regarding koji and miso.
The repressive system and control measures imposed on miso producers over the last few centuries discouraged people from implementing improvements to the process of making the paste.
During the World Wars period, the production of miso slowed down. Food scarcity kept influencing consumption until the 1950s when miso sales started raising again and have continued to the present times.
In the sixties and seventies, miso had become popular in a dehydrated form and as a base for instant miso soups. High rates of strokes and high blood pressure evoked the inventions of low salt miso, which became popular within the next few decades. The recipes became standardized to contain around 9 to 12% of salt.
Miso in Europe
First notes about miso in Europe come from around the 16th century – 300 years earlier than in America. In 1597 an Italian traveller described his stay in Japan, including descriptions of “sharp, piquant flavoured paste”. A more detailed description of koji and miso came from a German scientist who also travelled to Japan in 1712. Europeans struggled in capturing miso in its true form – a Swedish doctor thought that the soybeans themselves were called “miso” while English botanists thought that miso was a base used for making soy sauce. First European miso production has been established in Switzerland by the Maggi – company known for its hydrolysed vegetable protein. Over 50 years later, in 1957 in Belgium, a family company established a second miso production site in Europe.
Science meets miso
Some of the most comprehensive scientific research on miso has been published in the 1970s at the Department of Microbiology at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. Almost a decade later one of the best reviews on the subject of miso was published as a Ph.D. dissertation called “Microbiology and Biochemistry of Miso Fermentation” by Dr. Sumbo Abiose. In 1889 German scientist, Dr. Oscar Kellner, published his classic “Researches on the Manufacture and Composition of Miso”. In the United States, the first reference to the product from the late 19th century appeared in “Soybeans and Soybean Products” publication based on the work of Kellner.
Miso in North America
The first empirical research on koji molds in America started in the 1920s. The first miso producers appeared in the early 20th century – manufacture in Hawaii, using imported Japanese soybeans. Another miso factory started in 1920 and 1921 in Honolulu and Maui Islands, respectively. With a growing demand for fine quality miso, several more miso production plants opened in the post-war era.
Shurtleff, W., & Aoyagi, A. (2001). The Book of Miso: Savory, High-protein Seasoning: Vol. II