Cultural arts: Japanese miso is alive and thriving in Western North Carolina

MASTER CRAFTSMAN: Joe Kato, the American Miso Co.’s miso master, keeps careful tabs on the product at the American Miso Co. He sometimes visits the facility in the middle of the night to check temperatures and monitor the fermentation process. Photo by Cindy Kunst

The drive out to the American Miso Co. on a clear autumn day is stunningly beautiful — and a bit of an adventure. It seems straightforward enough heading east out of Asheville on I-40, but once you leave behind the interstate near Marion, getting to the manufacturing facility in Rutherford County is a matter of snaking along for a solid hour on mountain roads flanked by forests and cow pastures peppered with the occasional house or church.

And once you arrive, there is a surprise: It’s tiny. Nestled among trees and fields, it seems unlikely that the unobtrusive set of small warehouses could comprise the largest organic, non-GMO miso manufacturer in the world.

What it is

But what does that even mean? Miso, a fermented paste made from soybeans or other legumes or grains mixed with sea salt, has been a staple of Japanese cuisine for many centuries. Its rich umami flavor is the fundamental building block of numerous dishes essential to Japanese culture, from soups to pickles to desserts.

SECRET INGREDIENT: Miso’s umami flavor lends itself to all types of dishes. Clockwise from top: miso-tahini salad dressing, dairy-free pesto and Thai peanut sauce made with Miso Master miso. Photo by Cindy Kunst
SECRET INGREDIENT: Miso’s umami flavor lends itself to all types of dishes. Clockwise from top: miso-tahini salad dressing, dairy-free pesto and Thai peanut sauce made with Miso Master miso. Photo by Cindy Kunst

Yet, in spite of its illustrious history as a traditional handcrafted culinary necessity in Japan, the average American consumer likely has no idea what miso tastes like, or even what it is. And although restaurants around the world use the the American Miso Co.’s Miso Master products — including local eateries such as Gan Shan Station, Chestnut and Doc Chey’s Noodle House — miso isn’t exactly hanging out with sriracha and turmeric as a hot food trend.

But sales have been growing steadily at the American Miso Co., and an expansion of its manufacturing operation is planned for “sooner rather than later,” says national sales director Leila Bakkum, who works from the West Asheville office of the American Miso Co.’s distribution and sales arm, Great Eastern Sun Trading Co.

“Here we have this product that’s been around for centuries, and now we’re starting to recognize it as a new type of flavor profile,” says Bakkum, adding that miso is also known for its health benefits (it’s a living probiotic and contains a plant isoflavone reported to be a cancer preventative). Miso Master misos, she says, are sold in 90 percent of all the natural-foods stores in the U.S. and all Whole Foods stores.

The process

“Even in Japan, there aren’t that many companies of this size making organic miso,” says Joe Kato, the company’s vice president and current miso master. A native of Tokyo and founder of landmark Lexington Avenue Japanese restaurant Heiwa Shokudo, Kato has worked with miso off and on since shortly after owner Barry Evans opened the company in 1989 with John Belleme (father of Asheville entrepreneur Justin Belleme).

John Belleme, the company’s first miso master, did a seven-month miso-making apprenticeship in the late 1970s at the Onozaki Miso Co. in Japan’s rural Tochigi Prefecture. Kato also later received his training from the Onozaki family.

“Most organic miso makers in Japan are mom-and-pop shops, so very small companies,” explains Kato. “Commercial miso companies [in Japan] with big machinery do make organic miso, but it’s only a small part [of their operations].”

Every step of the miso-making process at the Rutherford County plant is done by hand in the traditional Japanese way. The company buys organic brown rice from Arkansas, mills it to remove the husk (husks are donated to an equine nonprofit organization for the horses to eat), then steams it, cools it to a very specific temperature and inoculates it with spores of the fungus Aspergillus oryzae, or koji.

The koji-infused rice is the catalyst that allows the soybeans or other legumes to ferment into miso. It creates its own heat as it matures and must be kept at just the right temperature for 48 hours — not too hot, not too cold — before it is mixed with the other components. When it is ready, the rice has transformed into a crumbly, white substance that smells and tastes earthy and alive, somewhat like a very fresh mushroom.

From there, members of the company’s 10-person production crew mix the koji by hand with sun-dried sea salt and organic soybeans, barley or chickpeas, depending on the type of miso being made.

The waiting game

The next step is where patience comes into play. The paste is transferred to wooden barrels, loosely covered with cloth to keep out dust, weighted down with river rocks then left alone to age.

The mellow, lighter-colored misos are aged a short time in a temperature-controlled room — anywhere from 15 days to one month. The darker, richer traditional misos are loaded into enormous 4-ton, custom-made barrels of cypress, redwood or fir, which are lined up like an army of stoic giants in a warehouse that’s purposely not temperature-controlled.

And this is where one discovers the design behind situating the world’s largest organic miso manufacturer in the tucked-away mountains of Rutherford County. “This is a good location for the process because of the seasons,” says Bakkus.

The climate in Rutherford County, apparently, is almost identical to the climate in the part of Japan where the traditional aged misos are crafted. And over the course of two years of slow fermentation in a facility exposed to fluctuating outside temperatures, the climate strongly affects the quality and flavor of the miso.

“It’s way, way labor-intensive. We don’t cut any corners. It’s a dying art. Even in Japan, not that many take the care we take. … Joe actually comes in sometimes in the middle of the night to test the temperature [of the koji] and taste it to make sure everything is on track,” says Bakkus.

And that kind of dedication is hard to find. Kato, who used to work in the music industry in Tokyo, is growing restless with his quiet life making miso in Appalachia. He says he would love to find an apprentice to learn the craft so he can evenutually retire and spend more time in Asheville and traveling with his girlfriend, Mayumi Nishimura, the macrobiotic cookbook author who was Madonna’s personal chef for more than seven years.

“But it takes a very special, unique person to commit to this,” says Bakkus. Until that person materializes, Kato will keep making the miso.

A matter of taste

Although in Western culture miso is most often found in Asian and macrobiotic cuisine, it is beginning to find its way into other areas. Locally, Smiling Hara tempeh recently released its inaugural miso-flavored offering, Sweet Miso Ginger Soy Tempeh Strips, which are seasoned with Miso Master’s Mellow White Miso.

“Not only does [the miso] add umami to the flavor profile in the miso-ginger marinade, but it adds all kinds of nutritional benefits as well. Tempeh and miso are a perfect match,” says Smiling Hara owner Sarah Yancey. The company, Yancey continues, is also developing a marinade using Miso Master Miso Tamari, a rich, thick soy saucelike byproduct of the miso-making process.

A savory tempeh dish with miso obviously make sense, but even purveyors of some of Asheville’s sweeter food products are getting in on the action. The Hop has featured miso among its ice cream flavors, and Vortex Doughnuts recently experimented with Miso Master as well.

Vortex pastry chef Sara Faulkner says the shop has done a miso-ginger capuccino for its coffee menu, as well as a red-miso sugar doughnut and a doughnut with a white miso and matcha-tea glaze. “We like to be experimental with our flavors,” says Faulkner, adding that the miso provided an interesting facet to both the coffee and the doughnuts. “You would taste the sugar first, then the umami would come in and extend the sugar flavor. It was a really cool combination.”

Like Yancey, Faulkner says she hopes to continue developing products that incorporate miso, specifically the locally made Miso Master varieties. “I would love to do a lot more with miso,” she says. Until recently, she says, she was like many people in Asheville: She didn’t even know the quiet little company was there.


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3 thoughts on “Cultural arts: Japanese miso is alive and thriving in Western North Carolina

  1. The Real World

    Very nice article, Gina.
    I really enjoy reading about local, innovative companies.
    And the businesses with unusual products and that are off-the-beaten path, all the more.

  2. Gina Smith

    Thanks so much! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun trekking out there and seeing how it’s all done. It’s a fascinating process.

  3. Renee

    Thank you for such a lovely information. I use miso very often in my cooking, I will use more now that I realized it is grown and made in USA instead of Japan. I must look for white Miso in the store. Renee

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