Somewhere in Japan

Dispatch № 8: A Surprisingly Deep Bowl

35°51’04.9″N 139°39’16.3″E

How many organisms does it take to make a bowl of soup? If it’s miso soup, the answer is usually around nine. Surprised?

Most mornings, I make miso soup for my girlfriend’s breakfast. Quick and easy, I’ve made it a thousand times and could probably do it in my sleep. It seems as uncomplicated as a dish can be, but lurking in the bowl are many stories.

Today’s story: every living thing needed for that bowl of soup.

The soup base is made with konbu (edible kelp, mostly from the family Laminariaceae) and katsuobushi, which are flakes of dried skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis) shaved so thin they’re translucent. But in to make those, you also need wood to smoke it (which could be oak, pasania, or castanopsis) and Aspergillus glaucus to ferment it.

So that’s four organisms already.

Next, consider the miso paste, which is the other component of the basic soup, as well as a staple throughout Japanese cooking. Made primarily from soybeans (Glycine max), you also need Aspergillus oryzae to ferment them, and a medium on which to initially propagate the fungus. This is usually rice (Oryza sativa) or barley (Hordeum vulgare).

Three more, for seven so far.

So that’s the basic soup, but it nearly always has some solids in it. Thin slices of green onion (Allium fistulosum) are nearly universal, as are the pieces of wakame (Undaria pinnatifida), the tender green seaweed that glides on the currents in your bowl. Finally, some tofu.

This last one is a freebie, as it’s made from soybeans, and we have already counted them. Still, that’s two more. A total of nine organisms required for one supposedly simple bowl of soup.

Everything around us has stories to tell. Even the seemingly mundane elements of everyday life can explode with detail if we give them the attention they deserve and let them speak to us in their own voices.

When I make miso soup early in the morning, sometimes before sunrise, it’s easy to fall into the familiar rhythms of it. Slicing the onion, preparing the broth, and mixing in the miso such that there are no unincorporated lumps. As I cook, I consider every part of it, and for every new way I learn to think about this dish, it tells me new stories.

Even a simple breakfast can reveal the world to you. You just have to listen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Picture of David R Munson

David R Munson

Photographer, essayist, wanderer, weirdo. Everything is interesting if you give it an honest chance to be.

More about David