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Novel Misos: Question & Answer

Joshua Evans answers questions about novel misos.

Published onOct 07, 2022
Novel Misos: Question & Answer

Editors note: This publication contains a lightly edited transcript of the question and answer portion of the corresponding lecture.

Image attribution: “Example of typical Miso soup. (Tofu and seaweed.).” Ocdp, CC0.

Q + A:

Question: Nixtamalization is a phrase that I have just learned today. The technique was developed in the Americas. When was that knowledge brought over to Japan for miso creation? Is it standard in miso recipes as well? 

Josh: Thanks for asking this. Maybe I didn't clarify this enough, but as far as I'm aware, nixtamalization does not feature in traditional Japanese miso making. It's an entirely separate tradition.  

This is partly what's quite novel about some of the new misos Noma has made over the last few years. They bring these these techniques and these traditions together and ask: “What happens if we put those together? “

Question: Is the effect of the nixtamalization process that it increases enzymatic activity? 

Josh: Good question. Long before I could generate the DNA sequence data I was already interacting with the misos sensorily. Over the course of my experiment, I was taking measurements of temperature and humidity and noticing how it changed its texture and its smell and its taste. One thing that became very clear about all the nixtamalized misos was that they became noticeably more moist than the other misos even though none of them had water added to them. All the legumes were cooked in a quite standard way, yet all of the nixtamalized ones were wetter than their non-nixtamalized counterparts. And that makes sense in a lot of ways. The nixtamalization doesn't necessarily produce more enzymes. That's mainly what the koji is doing. The nixtamalization is physically and chemically breaking down a lot of the larger structures in the pea, for example. What that means is that it breaks the structure down more than a non-nixtamalized one and breaks some of the molecules into smaller pieces.  This makes more of its molecules to these other microbes, such as bacteria, that start to grow. It expedites the process of breakdown. That's probably why they were also kind of looser and softer. And it also made the flavors converge. The flavors between the three nixtamalized novel proteins (the pea and the lentil and the fava bean), were less distinct in flavor. They kind of smelled like  proper Mexican corn tortillas, which get their smell mainly from the nixtamalizing, not from the corn. When you do nixtamalization on grain and legumes other than corn, you often get a similar kind of slightly ammonia note. 

Question: We had a ton of questions about what sensory differences happened with these misos as well. Additionally,  do you have any that were your favorites?  Or if you were to rank them, what would your top three be? 

Josh: I mainly talked about the ecology today. But in the context of the whole project that I'm doing, of course taste is the central, or at least a very important, idea. When it comes to the teams at Noma and Empirical and these other kitchens where I've been studying, when they make ferments, of course they're not sequencing the DNA to find out what's in it. They're tasting and smelling it and watching it, just like all of us when we do fermentations at home. 

What became interesting is that when some of these team members are doing it, especially if they have a little basic knowledge of science, they're able to match up some of the sensory impressions with some knowledge principles of science to be able to infer and say, “OK, well, this miso is getting a lot of fruity notes. And I know that these fruity notes are esters that are often produced when certain yeasts are interacting with certain bacteria or whatever. So I can kind of know implicitly that this miso likely has more of this yeast than this other miso”. This became  very interesting in the course of doing the ethnography. That's a whole other story that we won't talk about here. 

To your question about whether I have preferences. I was really interested in not just tasting them myself but also tasting these misos with team members at Noma in the fermentation lab, hearing how these highly trained chefs would describe them, which ones they would like, which ones they wouldn’t. This helped to paint a larger picture not just of how these processes might be changing the ecologies but how, when certain misos are selected for over others, it helps to propagate certain ecologies forward into the future and let other ecologies die off or not be propagated further. When we  put those two sets of data together is where things start to get really interesting. 

I would say the nixtamalized misos were actually surprisingly less delicious than we were hoping for. Some of the flavors got a little bit musty or indistinct. It was also interesting to do the soybean control as part of the experiment, because it reminded us of how delicious soybean and rice koji miso is. There's a reason, I think, why all of these East Asian cultures were using soybean and all sorts of varieties of soybean. It's delicious. You can't get around it, really. 

Question: Quite a few questions came in about your space experiment. Is it kind of the same setup? Were you sending loads of different samples? 

Josh: As you can imagine, it's quite difficult to send something up to the ISS. It takes a lot of time, a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of money(gratefully, MIT provided the funding) And space is very limited. We had space for one miso pot. And it was a lot smaller than the average. 

The batches that I made at Noma, for example, were each two kilos each, which is also not that big, but it's enough for it to ferment properly. Whereas the space one was maybe 200 grams or so, 250 grams. Therefore it's not perfectly comparable, mainly because even if the recipe's the same, the difference in volume can make a big difference in how the fermentation proceeds. But we're hoping that it will still yield some interesting data. 

From a sensory point of view, the space miso tastes like an earth miso. Based on a sensory analysis  it's still a miso. We sent that little miso up onto the ISS in a box that was monitoring a lot of environmental data.  It was recording temperature, humidity, pressure, off gassing, and radiation. Im particularly excited about radiation, because at least in principle, that should be one of the factors that's different between space and Earth that could be shaping the ecology differently. But only the data will tell. It was up there for 30 days, and then it flew down, plopped into the Pacific Ocean, and a boat went and got it and brought it back. We kept it in the freezer, and now we're going to sequence it. 

Question: Are you going to taste it? 

Josh: Oh yeah, we did. We tasted it. We did a sensory analysis last week in the lab. We had two controls. We had one miso that I fermented here in Copenhagen and one that my colleague Maggie fermented in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the space miso. Together with a couple colleagues from the lab here in Copenhagen, we did a double blind sensory analysis set up. 

The space miso definitely tasted different from the other two. But this is probably partly because the space miso has traveled a lot more than the other two and it's been jostled around a little bit more. Of course, that isn't the same as having been to space. Therefore  this is one of the caveats with this experiment;  it's very much an exploratory experiment. There's still some opportunity for it to yield some very interesting findings, I think. 

Hopefully we can do more in the future. It's part of my colleague's research, part of a larger project that is looking at trying to think about futures around eating in space. The research doesn’t just focus on it from the functional point of view, which is what most of this research tends to focus on. Are astronauts getting enough nutrition and can they eat things that don't leak everywhere and destroy the space shuttle or whatever? But astronauts who are up there for months at a time also report that the hardest thing about being in space is the monotony of the food and how much it sucks. Therefore, there's a lot more work being put into the question of whether we make foods that are delicious, that are satisfying to astronauts. One consequence of being in space is that your senses are dulled and you taste things differently.  Part of what my colleague and I are trying to develop are ways for astronauts to not only eat fermented foods in space but to do fermentations themselves in space and then eat these foods. Hopefully these foods can be more delicious and maybe even have specific flavors that are a result of the unique experience of being in space. 

That could potentially give them a bit of gastronomic satisfaction and also give them a sense of emotional connection to their food production, of having a little piece of Earth that ties them to this larger web of life. That would bring a lot of satisfaction to the people who are doing work up there. 

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