Odds are, you’ve seen miso starring on a local menu or at the grocery store. The umami-rich fermented soy paste, which has roots in Chinese and Japanese cuisine, has grown popular in Asheville over the last few years.
You can find it in Smiling Hara Hempeh, as a sauce ingredient at Green Sage Cafe, and in gourmet dishes at restaurants like Asheville Proper and Ukiah.
But long before miso went mainstream in the Southeastern US, a small, rural factory out in Rutherfordton had already begun crafting its first batches of hand-mixed, organic miso.
At the helm of this movement: a small group of macrobiotic enthusiasts, including current owner Barry Evans and John Belleme (author of “The Miso Book” and “Japanese Foods That Heal”). They believed in a diet of whole, seasonal, and organic foods and sought to popularize this movement by producing their own organic and probiotic-dense goods.
To learn the ins and outs of the miso process, John and his wife Jan Belleme apprenticed with the Japanese family Takamichi Onozaki, who reside in the foothills of Japan’s mountainous Tochigi prefecture. For eight months, they trained with these “old school” fourth-generation miso makers, eating traditional foods and living in the family’s 300-year-old house.
When the Bellemes left Japan, they were determined to bring these ancient techniques back to America, and thus decided to open the factory in Rutherfordton. While the destination, perhaps, seems random — it was selected based on its climate and clean water, which turns out to be very similar to the Tochigi prefecture.
The first miso batch made in Rutherfordton was traditional red. The process, which Edible Asheville explains in brilliant detail, involves inoculating a batch of cooked grains with mold, which then transforms the grain into koji. The koji is then blended with sea salt and a paste of cooked soybeans and left to ferment anywhere from 15 days to two years, based on the type of miso being created.
In the case of the traditional red miso, a mixture of koji, salt, and soybeans is left to naturally ferment in a giant wooden barrel for one year. When the batch was ready, Takamichi Onozaki visited Rutherfordton to sample the batch — and ultimately gave his blessing. At that point, the factory began to distribute its “Miso Master” products to health food stores across the US, which included the first-ever Whole Foods in Austin, TX.
Four decades later, and you’d be hard-pressed to visit any Whole Foods, co-op, or natural food store and not see Miso Master. Since the 1980s, American Miso Co. has expanded from two to six flavors, and as of 2022, it sells about 1.5 million pounds a year — an impressive feat for a team of 32.
And what’s even more impressive, to us, is how a rural town in Western North Carolina serves as a quiet, magical bridge between Japanese and Appalachian culture.
Want to try cooking with miso? Chef Michael Lewis of Ukiah Japanese Smokehouse has kindly shared a special recipe.
Grilled Seasonal Mushroom with Pumpkin Miso and Herbs
Makes four servings
- 4 lb. pumpkin (peeled and cut into large pieces)
- 11-12 shallots (cut into quarters)
- 1/3 lb. ginger (sliced)
- ½ cup olive oil
- 4 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 tsp. cayenne pepper
- ½ lb. miso of choice
- 1 maitake, portabella or other mushroom of your choice
- Umami seasoning (available in the Asian section of the grocery store)
- Toasted pumpkin seeds
- Pumpkin seed oil (or any nutty oil except peanut)
1. Roast the mushroom
- Grill or roast your mushroom of choice with a little olive oil at 425ºF until it’s tender and lightly browned. Set aside.
2. Make the pumpkin miso
- Combine pumpkin, shallots, ginger, olive oil, salt, and cayenne in a large bowl, and mix. Then grill or broil the pumpkin just until you see a bit of color or char.
- Preheat oven to 400°F.
- Mix and place everything (besides the miso) on an oven safe tray, cover with foil, and roast for 30 minutes.
- Remove from oven and use food processor to blend until pureed. Then add the miso and blend until smooth.
Note: This recipe makes four cups and will last in the refrigerator for about five days. It’s also delicious on chicken or steak.
2. Assemble the dish
- On a round large plate, place about 4-5 tablespoons of hot pumpkin miso.
- Place the mushroom on top, followed by about a tablespoon of umami herbs and two teaspoons of toasted pumpkin seeds.
- Drizzle with pumpkin seed oil (or substitute).