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We are what we eat

May 15, 2010

by Shinsuke Uno

It has been more than four months.  Yet, there is another half year or so for it to be ready.  That is how long it takes to prepare “miso” (soy bean paste, one of the most basic ingredients in Japanese cooking).  Back in January this year, ten or so people (men and women of a range of ages) gathered in Beans Kitchen, a restaurant specializing in vegetarian bean dishes, for a miso making workshop run by Junko Seto, the owner chef of this little restaurant in Yanaka, Tokyo.

“A bean dish my friend brought to a party inspired me,” says Seto.  It was so good and made her wonder about beans, food so basic yet she knew so little about them at the time.  Learning about beans for her was also learning about all sort of food related issues ranging from genetically modified food to the environmental cost of eating meat.  But instead of demonizing, for example, eating meat, she decided to promote a positive alternative of eating beans and helping people learn about food they eat.  Eventually, she quit her job at a bank and started Beans Kitchen.

So, the restaurant is also a learning space and, among other things, she has been offering the workshop a few times every winter over its four-year history.  “It’s always so popular that fills up so quickly,” she says.  People do gather for a range of reasons.  Some were there just for fun while others came driven by their curiosity about miso, something they eat almost everyday.  While Seto doesn’t lecture the participants, she inserts bits of useful information.  For example, the they learned that cheap mass-produced miso is made possible by using soy leftover from soy oil production and by accelerating fermentation with chemical additives.

The process of miso making itself is quite simple:  boiled soy is made into paste, which is then mixed with salt and mold cultured on grain, know as “koji”, and the mixture is left to ferment.  However, it is time consuming and tiring task.  Starting at 9:30AM with boiled soy beans, people spent nearly four hours grinding and pounding to prepare the paste.  When the entire process was completed, it was well past 6:00PM.  The participants agreed that each of them could have done it at home in a smaller scale, but unlikely, because of the tenacity the task required.  It was the sense of engaging in a common task, conversation with others that made the whole process possible and, above all, fun.  It was a bonding experience.  Many pondered about how things were done as a community in the old days.  At end of it all, pleasantly exhausted, the participants left the workshop with their share of miso they made together, and are still waiting for the slow fermentation to bring a little perfection.

“You are what you eat,” it’s been said so for a long time.  The statement is also very true in the sense that learning about food teaches us about our culture, that who we are.

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