Hatcho miso, the Imperial choice miso
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The Original: Hatcho- Miso
Near Okazaki Castle the old Tokkaido Road (the Edo-era route from Tokyo to Kyoto) runs between two miso-making companies. Hundreds of years ago highway travellers would have passed by the same buildings, minus the paved yards and wires linking the rooftops, using the same techniques passed down through generations to today’s producers. Maruya Hatcho Miso Company stands on the left side of the narrow lane, where the Ohta, Kato, and now Asai families have produced miso for four hundred years.
Miso dates back to the 4th century B.C. in China where fermenting soybeans, wheat, alcohol, and salt made the first miso paste. Buddhist monks brought their knowledge of the method to Japan in the 7th century. The seasoning became popular with the Shogunate samurai, restricting the new condiment to the upper-class. In Hatcho, the Tokugawa family protected the two producers, where the miso-makers often acted as bankers, doling out loans to the citizens of the area.
Now Japan produces hundreds of varieties of miso contrasting in color, taste and texture based on the weather, land, and unique methods used in each area. These types can be divided into three groups based on the grain used: rice, barley, or soybean. There are thirty-six kinds of soy miso. Other areas known for their particular miso include Kyoto for Shiro-miso and Nagano Prefecture for Shinshu-miso. But in Aichi, Hatcho creates one of the richest, savory pastes. Rumor has it, Native Nagoyans have an exceptional love of the darker, strong red miso flavors.
The current president of Maruya, Mr. Nobutarou Asai, works to conserve the traditional buildings and tools, family-run atmosphere, and caliber of his miso. He looked like a slightly eccentric professor, eager to share his knowledge of Hatcho-miso and philosophy on preserving a high quality miso “farm”. Indeed Maruya feels more like a farm than a factory. Employees on a tea break sit in the sun outside wooden buildings among plots of potted flowers and bushes. They even share their cookies with us. Workers used to spread sweets onto newspapers, says Mr. Asai, but now they hand out little matcha tea biscuits in individual packets.
Like the head of a family, Mr. Asai feels responsible for his fifty employees and enjoys adding any company profit to their normal bi-yearly bonus. In return, all his employees must possess a similar enthusiasm for miso and a knack for multi-tasking. They may have to package, process, give tours or take a turn doing clerical work. Even Mr. Asai has helped in other areas of his business. In the past he drove the morning delivery trucks; going to the storehouse around five a.m. to load boxes and returning back to the farm by 11 a.m. to finish his workday. He believes that a leader must experience every aspect of his company in order to manage all the different parts well and understand his staff.
At Maruya production still relies mainly on manual labor, even the packaging is done by hand. Unlike machine-run factories, we can still hear birds singing and people talking. Aged buildings, with timber sides and supports, house the original Edo-period cedar wood barrels used to store the soybeans during the fermentation period; they looked like car-size replicas of grape-crushing vats, held together by bamboo strapping. I had to climb a ladder to look into a partially emptied barrel. The beans ferment in these vats for almost three years in the un-airconditioned environment. Nothing is added in the way of preservatives or chemicals, they just use the identical time-honoured process. When the miso has matured an employee must empty the brown mulch matter, their only tools being rubber boots, a disc to stand on, and a shovel. A farm aroma wafts around the building—a mixture of a sweet scent, like wet hay, and the smell of ocean breezes.
Before the beans get to the casks, they go through a process of sorting, washing, steaming, drying, and cooling. Once cooked, workers mould the beans into baseball-sized balls and inject koji spores. The spores web around the sphere and lactic-acid producing bacteria work into the core. These vaccinated balls go into the vats with water and sea salt. To make Hatcho-miso less water and salt are used than other brands, so the fermentation takes longer.
The most difficult job in the production line goes to the stone-layers. Once in the barrels, the beans are covered with a cloth tarp. The stone-layers must create a stone cone pyramid equal to the weight of the miso on top of this cloth without any cement or mortar. This shape puts an equal amount of pressure over the paste to keep the moisture separating from the solids, maintaining product quality throughout the entire tub. Some of the larger stones weigh up to sixty kilograms. This process can take up to three hours. Mr. Asai employs several stone-layers; the most-experienced has placed stones for forty years. He says that every stone has a face and you just have to position that face to the outside. He still feels the newest addition to the team needs more training after eight years.
Maruya ship their products to inns and restaurants in Japan and overseas to the growing macrobiotic markets in Europe and America. As Mr. Asai says, Japanese people and macrobiotic dieters believe miso is good for the spirit. In Japanese mythology miso was believed to be a gift from the gods to ensure a long life.
In the burgeoning macrobiotic market, people try to eat natural foods based on the seasons. They believe in the yin (stimulating characteristics), yang (strengthening/stagnating characteristics), and balancing power of foods. Whole grains, legumes, and soy products balance the diet and spirit. Thus, products like miso have become very popular in places like Manhattan. Mr. Asai recently visited New York City to introduce more uses of miso to the American market. He even wants to promote a kind of homemade miso cookie made with paste, leeks and ginger, then baked under a little pottery cup.
While I will never be able to follow a strict macrobiotic diet due to my love of chocolate and coffee, I can still enjoy the benefits of miso. Like all soy products, it has a significant amount of protein and also contains enzymes which promote a healthier digestion system. A study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that women who had three or more bowls of miso soup a day reduced their risk of breast cancer.
Miso soup remains one of the most popular ways to consume hatcho-miso. In my naiveté I’d just been putting paste into boiling water to make the broth. Mr. Asai and Avenues editor, Yuko Suzuki, became my miso cooking teachers. In order to make a proper broth, you should purchase bonito (shavings or the whole fish) to create the dashi first. Then add paste and other ingredients such as mushrooms, scallions, and udon noodles. They also recommended Hiyayakko, for an easy meal in the deflating summer heat. Drain water from cold tofu and put shaved ginger and miso sauce (made with miso, sugar, and sake) over the top. Easy, cool, and healthy.
Just last year, NHK filmed a television program using the factory as a set. The show depicted an historical battle between the Japanese government and miso-farmers during the onset of World War II. The government decided miso manufacturing was too costly and unnecessary so they ordered all farms to halt production. Of course, the farmers struggled against this decision until the government relented. They said miso production could resume if companies used more water and salt to make a higher volume. However, like Mr. Asai, the producers would not change from the recipe they knew made the best miso.
Recently Mr. Asai had to battle in the courts with a group of other miso manufacturers who had taken the famed Hatcho-miso name. However, Mr. Asai said, only the two farms in Hatcho-chou along the Tokkaido make the genuine paste using the authentic four hundred-year-old methods. He hopes that by continuing to make a high quality paste and with special promotions in special markets, consumers will taste the difference for themselves and come to appreciate the natural taste of the real farm product and sift out the fakes.
To tour Maruya’s Hatcho-Miso farm, please call and book in advance at 0564220222. Group tours can begin between 8:30 and 11:30 a.m. or 13 and 16:20 p.m. Individual tours start on the hour and every half hour.