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Soy sauce originated as a liquid byproduct of making miso, a fermented soybean paste that is often also made with rice and barley. A great deal of miso is consumed in Japan—18 pounds per person per year—but in this country it is largely unknown outside of natural and gourmet food circles, which is a pity, since it’s an extraordinarily healthy and delectable food. There are only three commercial miso producers in the US, and one of them is South River Miso in Conway, Massachusetts. Founder Christian Elwell and his wife Gaella started the company in 1980 after studying miso making with Noburu Muramoto in California. The Elwells’ interest in miso arose from their deep involvement with macrobiotic food, and that holistic ethos still informs every aspect of the business. “The dream was not to mass-produce miso, but to have a livelihood connected to the land with a sense of community,” Elwell says. “As food has become more of a commodity, we have lost our connection to where it comes from—even to what food really is.”
South River Miso makes approximately 100,000 pounds of miso per year, and sales are brisk: Demand perpetually exceeds supply, and last year business increased by nearly 25 percent. The process at South River Miso is similar to making soy sauce, but not at all industrialized as at Wan Ja Shan. All the cooking is done slowly over wood fires. The koji growth and inoculation takes place on wooden trays, and fermentation happens in large wooden vats. South River makes about ten different kinds, which age either one or three years, and none are pasteurized; miso is a living food, and the microbes that thrive within each spoonful are beneficial to digestion. For this reason many people prefer not to cook miso, or else add it at the very end of cooking so as not to sterilize it. Miso is reported to have anticarcinogenic and powerful chelating properties, and to help those undergoing chemotherapy maintain a healthy digestive tract. Elwell speaks often of miso as medicine, “but not in the sense of ‘medical,’” he says. “When we prepare and eat food with intention, we connect with nature.” He likes to illustrate the digestive power of miso by stirring a spoonful into a bowl of freshly cooked oatmeal, and then letting it sit for a while. “It softens, becoming more liquid, and gets sweeter,” Elwell says, as the microbes and enzymes convert starches to sugars. “Rather than pouring syrup over the top, adding sweetness from the outside, you can unlock the sweetness that’s already there.”
Besides health, eating is about pleasure, and these misos are sensual delights. Sweet, sour, complex, even fruity—they inspire creativity in the kitchen. The lighter one-year misos are ideal for soups, dressings, and adding depth to just about anything. The darker, more powerful three-year misos cry out to be rubbed on meat and fish, or mixed with butter for slathering on chicken or vegetables before roasting, or to cure pork belly. If, as Elwell says, “we’ve been robbed of our simple pleasures and tastes,” then his work is surely the remedy.
The contrast between these two companies is instructive; one is rural, scrupulously traditional, and grows carefully despite ever-increasing demand. The other is urban, industrial, and most of their product is used in other industrial food. But it’s not so simple; Wan Ja Shan uses New York-grown beans and grain for their organic line, while South River Miso’s ingredients come from California and China. Wan Ja Shan makes enough soy sauce to allow anybody in the region to easily buy some, while South River Miso is available to only a tiny fraction of local consumers. Both examples can be useful as we grope (and eat) our way forward toward a sustainable food future.