Miso soup is not what you think it is.
It’s not the soup that you get before sushi, kind of cloudy and white, with ever so few scallions and some tofu. It’s not that freeze dried stuff to which you add hot water. It’s not two dollars’ worth of warm liquid.
Miso soup is magic.
Miso soup is brown, a dark and stormy earth tone, with cloud bursts at the surface. It is filled with actual vegetables, carrots and cauliflower and scallions and tofu and cabbage and seaweed. It is hot, hearty, and the epitome of health. I know because miso saved my life.
When I was in my second year of grad school I worked in a coffee shop. The perfect cliche job for a student, and within biking distance, I would work in the morning and take class at night. Morning, for a coffee shop, begins at an unholy hour. I would wake up just after 4am, and start my work day at 5:30 on the dot. This wouldn’t have been an issue if I would have been getting to sleep at a reasonable hour. But I wasn’t. I was 21 with a tendency towards being nocturnal, and I was working too hard and having too much fun to go to bed. So for almost three months, I was averaging about four hours of sleep a night. If you have ever lived through a time of such prolonged sleeplessness, then you know what happens next. I started to actually go crazy. Your body begins to act like its drunk, even though it’s 10am on a Tuesday morning and the only thing you’ve had to drink is free coffee (the ultimate perk of serving!) My friends began expressing concern, but I was so well-caffeinated I thought I could handle it. When I began to feel dizzy riding my bike around, I knew I had to make a change. I asked to switch locations, and thus have a later starting hour. I also made a genuine effort to get to bed earlier. An extra 2-3 hours a night did wonders, and a crisis was averted.
But why, you might be wondering, did I have to wake up so early before my clock-in hour? Couldn’t I just throw some clothes on and roll? Well, for reasons I don’t fully understand, I was adamant about eating breakfast before work. And breakfast was not toast or cereal or fruit. It was miso. Every morning before arriving at the shop and making myself a coffee, I stood in my tiny kitchen in Alphabet City and made miso soup. I made it the same way every morning. I’d chop up one scallion stalk, one carrot, and equal parts cauliflower and tofu. While those cooked in boiling water, I would do my make-up by the light from my bedroom window. Once the veggies were softened, I’d pour just a little water out into my bowl, and add just about 1/2 of a kitchen spoon’s worth of brown rice miso. The dark miso has much more flavor than the white varieties often used in restaurants. Once the miso had dissolved, I’d pour that concentrated mixture back into the pot, to mix with the rest of the water and veggies. The final step was a sprinkle of seaweed, dark wakame flakes that bloomed when they hit the broth. I would eat slowly at first, then quicker as the soup cooled. When the bowl was empty, it was on with my coat and out into the usually still dark morning.
I have no idea why I did this consistently. Cereal would have been a wonderful time saver, as would toast and a banana. But somewhere deep down I knew that this meal was a necessity. I needed fuel for those long days, days starting with food service and ending in academia. I was on my feet all morning steaming milk and making change, then at various round tables every evening discussing short stories and queer theory. The miso was my morning mantra. It was my own personal spell, cast when everyone else was still sleeping, to keep me whole throughout the day. I knew then what I am sure of now, that the soup was keeping me sane.
And I have no other explanation for how I did not collapse during those days. I was working, reading, writing, biking, and socializing hard in the east and west village. I did not get sick once, not even a cold. And I ended the semester with straight A’s.
Since then I have learned that miso’s magic lies in the fermentation barrel. It has all the good bacteria that yogurt claims to have but often pasteurizes out. It removes heavy metals from the body, it’s a digestive aid, and it determines the quality of the blood that’s pumping through our veins. It is the ultimate immune booster. Legend has it that it was given to us by the gods.
I like to believe that last bit, because magic of any kind is so elusive these days. But there was certainly magic made on those mornings. That small routine, which I continued despite needing more sleep and despite unraveling ever so slightly, buoyed my body and my spirit. Without my soup, I’d surely have gotten much worse, much faster. I needed the heat, and I needed the ingredients. I needed the mantra.
So I invite you to get acquainted with real miso. You needn’t stick to my recipe exactly, use whatever veggies you prefer (add celery, spinach, chia seeds or watercress, go nuts!... but remember tofu and sea veggies will round it out nicely.) I mean, have you ever had soup for breakfast? I can’t recommend it enough. The magic alone is worth an extra ten minutes.