What Is Miso—and Is It Healthy?

Miso is a food you’ve likely been exposed to before, but it’s rarely explained on menus. This ingredient is actually one of the most ancient elements in Chinese and Japanese cooking. Some historians even place miso’s usage as far back as the Neolithic Era and claim that it’s one of the very first superfoods. Miso is a cornerstone and a vital element of contemporary Japanese cooking, but what is it? Below we break down what miso is, how it’s made, and why you should add it to your diet.

What Is Miso?

Simply put, miso is a paste made from fermented soybeans that are combined with salt and koji. This paste or seasoning is used as a key element in a variety of dishes, but it’s most popular in misoshiru (aka miso soup).

One of the reasons for the confusion surrounding what miso is has to do with the difference between the paste and the dish with which it’s most commonly associated with: miso soup. Though the soup is a staple of Japanese cuisine, it can be made in a variety of ways. Depending on the spices and length of the fermentation process (it can take anywhere from a few days to a few years), the flavor is sometimes briny, lightly sweet, or vaguely reminiscent of oxtail soup. What’s important to differentiate here is that miso is an ingredient in the soup, but “miso” refers to a paste used in a variety of dishes.

Is Miso Healthy?

The health benefits of miso are part of the reason the ingredient has gained so much attention recently. Miso is high in protein and antioxidants, low in calories, but tends to be high in sodium. Also, miso is prized for its probiotic content and gut-healing bacteria, due to the fermentation of the paste. This makes it an excellent food to incorporate into your regular diet or as a substitute for chicken noodle soup. Of course, traditional miso has received some alluring updates in recent years, and we’re thrilled about some of the creative interpretations we’ve seen.

Now that you know what miso is, discover how to make miso soup with wasabi-roasted lentils.