Saturday, January 21, 2023


In several recent recipes, I’ve called for “miso” in the ingredient list, although the recipes had nothing to do with Japanese cooking. And, I’ve noticed that a fellow blogger, Mad Dog, who posts Spanish/Catalan recipes, often lists “anchovy paste” as an ingredient, for example, in sopa de fideos or carne con tomate. A French acquaintance always adds Vietnamese nuoc mam fish sauce to his otherwise traditional Spanish paella. 

What’s going on here? Miso, a fermented soybean paste; anchovies, and Asian fermented fish sauces all add umami—the fifth taste element perceived by the taste buds, along with sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Umami means yummy, mouth-watering, big-time savory, Umami ingredients add depth of flavor and richness to foods. 
Umami ingredients pictured, clockwise from bottom left, miso, soy sauce,
 sun-dried tomatoes, bonito flakes, fish sauce, anchovies, slivered ibérico ham,
 aged cheese, shitake dry mushrooms and kombu seaweed. 

I first bought miso when, preparing an all-vegetarian holiday dinner, I needed something to punch-up the gravy. My local “health food store” had only hatcho miso, a dark, almost black, paste the consistency of peanut butter. It was brilliant, giving the gravy a deep, beefy color and meaty taste. 

The flavor-enhancing effect comes from the presence in the food of glutamic acid, one of the amino acids that are components of protein. The glutamic acid bonds with other amino acids to produce the savory, mouth-watering effect. 
Here are foods, a few vegetarian, that are high in umami-making glutamates: seafood, especially molluscs, and cured fish (bonito flakes, anchovy paste); mushrooms, especially dried shitake; fermented pastes and sauces such as soy, tamari, nuoc mam, kecap; fermented foods such as kimchi; seaweed, especially kombu; fruits and vegetables such as oranges and tomatoes (especially sun-dried tomatoes; meat, especially dry-cured ham and cured sausages. 

Of course, you could just add a spoonful of umami powder—MSG, monosodium glutamate, also known by its original Japanese name, aji-no-moto. It appears in many packaged foods, such as soups. Oddly enough, I have been unable to find it where I shop, although it is available on-line at Amazon España. 

I continue to experiment with miso, as you can see in my recipe for arroz with ibérico pork. That rice dish gets a triple umami whammy, with ibérico pork, ham broth and a smidgen of miso. Today, I’m using miso to make a flavorful stock for sopa de ajo, a vegetarian version of Spanish garlic soup.

A robust Castillian garlic soup: chunks of bread soak up the savory broth. Pimentón and, in this variation, dark miso paste, give the soup its color. 

Poach eggs right in the soup.

Sopa de ajo, perfect for chill winter days.

Throw some greens, chard maybe, into the soup if you like.

Eggs can be poached in the soup or, poach them in a separate pan, add them to the soup bowls at the last minute. Keep the yolks runny--use the spoon to break up the egg into the bread-thickened broth.

Garlic Soup with Miso
Sopa de Ajo con Miso

Taking a cue from Japan’s iconic miso soup, I added miso to a very traditional sopa de ajo, Castillian garlic soup. Originally a peasant soup, made with garlic, olive oil, bread and water—basically vegetarian—garlic soup now is usually made with chicken or meat stock with diced ibérico ham adding umami. I’ve reverted to a vegetarian version, using miso to punch up the flavor.

Diced seitan (wheat gluten) subs for the ham that usually goes into garlic soup. If you want a vegan soup, substitute cubes of silken tofu for the eggs.

Miso (left) goes into this garlic soup.

Serves 4.

8-10 cloves garlic, peeled
1/3 cup olive oil
8-10 slices baguette
1 ounce seitan or smoked tofu, diced
2 teaspoon pimentón de la Vera (smoked paprika)
6 cups vegetarian stock (recipe follows)
1 teaspoon miso
4 eggs
Chopped parsley or scallions to garnish

Cut the cloves of garlic in half lengthwise. If they have a green sprout in the center, remove it with the tip of a knife. Slice the garlic crosswise and set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a wide, deep pan such as a cazuela or Dutch oven. Add the slices of bread and brown them on both sides. Remove and reserve them. Add the diced seitan to the pan with 1 tablespoon more oil and fry until it is browned. Skim it out.

Add remaining oil to the pan on medium heat. Add the sliced garlic and fry it, stirring, until it begins to turn golden. Take care that the garlic doesn’t burn. 

Add fried bread to the soup while it cooks.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the pimentón. Immediately add the stock. Return the pan to the heat. Add all but 4 slices of the toasted bread. Heat the soup, but do not let it boil. Cook, stirring frequently to break up the bread into small pieces. Cook 20 minutes.

Remove ½ cup of the hot stock and add to the miso. Stir to dissolve the miso. 

Return the fried seitan to the soup. Stir in the miso. Break eggs, one by one, into a saucer and slide them into the hot soup. Cook on low heat until the whites are set but yolks still very runny. Remove the pan from the heat. 

Serve the soup, sprinkled with parsley, in the same pan or ladled into soup bowls. 

Vegetarian Soup Stock with Miso
Caldo Vegetariano con Miso

Miso beefs up the stock pot. Onion skins add color. 

Dark hatcho miso paste.
This deeply flavorful stock based on miso is a good starting point for soups, sauces and gravy. Hatcho (black) miso contributes color as well as flavor, but white or red miso can also be used. 

I learned from a Japanese cookbook that kombu should be skimmed out of the stock-pot before the liquid comes to a boil, so that it doesn’t become bitter. And, miso, the star ingredient, should never boil or it loses its healthful properties (pro-biotic enzymes). Nevertheless, it still adds flavor, so I wasn’t too finnicky about cooking it.

Crank up the umami--miso, tomatoes, mushrooms.

Makes about 6 cups stock.

½ ounce dried shitake mushrooms
1 cup boiling water
8 cups water
1 onion, not peeled
4 cloves
1 leek, cut in thirds
¼ turnip, peeled
1 stalk celery
1 carrot, peeled
¼ cup sun-dried tomatoes or chopped fresh tomatoes
1 bay leaf
Sprig of thyme
2-inch piece of kombu
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns
¼ lemon
1 tablespoon miso
Salt, if needed

Dry shitake mushrooms.

Place the mushrooms in a heat-proof bowl. Pour the boiling water over them. Allow the mushrooms to soak 30 minutes to hydrate them.

Place the 8 cups of water in a soup pot. Add the mushrooms and their liquid. Cut the onion in half. Stick the cloves into the onion halves. Add both halves of the onion, (onion skins add color to the stock). Add the leek, turnip, celery, carrot and tomatoes. 

Kombu seaweed.
Add bay leaf, thyme, kombu, peppercorns and lemon. Bring the water to a boil. Skim off any froth that rises to the top. Skim out the kombu. Lower heat so the water bubbles gently. Cover and cook 30 minutes.

Place the miso in a small bowl. Ladle ½ cup of the hot stock over the miso. Stir until the miso paste is dissolved. Add the miso to the stock pot. Taste the stock and add salt, if needed. 

Uncover the pot and cook 15 minutes longer. Do not boil. Remove from the heat and let the stock stand 15 minutes. Carefully pour it through a colander. (Save vegetables for another use, if desired. Discard herbs and lemon.) Pour the stock through a fine sieve. Store it, covered and refrigerated, until ready to use for soup.

More garlic soup recipes:


  1. Janet, thanks so much for this. An embarrassingly long time ago (like half a century) I had a sopa de ajo in a country restaurant outside Madrid. It was splendid, memorable, but I have never been able to recreate it. Now I aim to try your Castilian recipe, with a dollop of miso--which of course was totally unknown in the Spain of that time--and maybe come close to the memory.

    1. Anony: Be sure to check out the link to the recipe for the classic sopa de ajo as well. Enjoy!

  2. That sopa de ajo looks incredible. I've had it made with water in the past and it's a bit bland, so I normally make it with whatever home made stock I have to hand. I will have to try it with miso! Thanks for posting links to my blog. The great thing about anchovy paste is that it's mashed anchovies and olive oil, no preservatives. A couple of tinned anchovies provides the same umami, but an open can of fish with olive oil (in the fridge) can get messy.

    1. Mad Dog: Best of all is the caldo from a puchero, with that background umami of ham bone as well as chicken. I'll have to try the anchovy paste. It's true, I almost always use anchovies mashed up in something. I've got an open tin in the fridge right now.