If you are not fluent in reading Japanese, it can make identifying and buying the right miso difficult which is why I have included imagery, along with all the keywords to help you identify the right product.
Thank you, FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) for requiring the labeling of foods. Without it, I would have to rely on my Nihongo reading abilities, which often leads to walking out with the wrong product. Except, you do not have to worry about that because I will have you walking out with that Japanese miso paste brand you were looking for, along with a box of mochi ice cream because you deserve it.
The Best Japanese Miso for You
I will provide you all the necessary information to help you make the “best” decision
I can say I am going to list the best, but I only say that because that is how most people search for things on Google. That is why I will provide you all the necessary information to help you make the “best” decision, but if you are like me when I get into potato brain mode, I will also provide the recommended brands and resources.
What Is Miso (Only 3 Ingredients)
Miso is fermented, but when I say that, I’m like “yea, it’s fermented, except in my brain, I’m like what’s fermenting.” So if you are equally potato brain like, here you go: fermentation is chemical process that breaks down molecules anaerobically such as glucose, and if you want an in depth article about miso fermentation, sciencedirect.com has a good article. I was lost after “anaerobically,” so I’m good.
- Soybeans (fermented grains to legumes)
- Koji (aspergillus oryzae)
“Other variations of miso: are a mix of soybeans, barley, rice, buckwheat, millet, rye, wheat, hemp seed, and cycad.“– Wikipedia.org.
Types of Japanese Miso (3 Primary Types)
I knew that there were types based upon color, but I had no clue what contributed to their color variations. Eventually, somewhere down the line, I learned that it was due to aging (the Maillard reaction), although, upon further research, I also learned that it was due to the type of koji used (soybean, rice, to barley).
- Shiro (white) miso
- Aka (red) miso
- Awase (mixed/blended) miso
“I highly recommend that you read Wikipedia.org content on miso if you want to know all the details of miso.”
Mustard Sauce to Miso Paste
Another note, I don’t usually say “miso paste” because miso is a paste, but typically Americans do that to help them identify it since miso is not a common ingredient, just like how none of us say peanut butter sauce, mustard sauce, or mayonnaise sauce.
General Rules Regarding the Color of Miso
- The color is impacted by the ratio of soybeans to rice or wheat, the amount of salt, to fermentation length.
- Miso is aged anywhere from 3 months to over 1 year
- The lighter colored miso is generally younger and less salty (shiromiso).
- The darker colored miso (akamiso) is aged long, bolder in flavor, and typically saltier.
Common Miso Descriptors
- Hatcho: 100% all soybean miso (general purpose miso).
- Saikyo: a white (shiro) miso from Kyoto, it is heavy on rice malt, it’s sweet, and low on sodium.
- Yuuki/mutenka: non-GMO, organic, and additive-free.
- Kome (rice), mugi (wheat), and mame (soybean).
Popular Uses for Miso
- Soup: from miso soup to ramen.
- Marinade: great for brining and marinating fish to meats.
- Sauces to dressings: premade dressings are available, but you can easily make your own, along with sauces.
- Dip (moromi): simply use it as a dip for raw veggies.
If you’re looking to impress, I highly suggest Chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s marinated black cod recipe.– Hikari Miso
Where This Content Differs from What You Can Find on wikipedia.org or on Other Websites
I want to make it easy for you to find the brand that best meets what you are looking for either online or in the market (it can be overwhelming).
Not only do I want you to know the basics of miso, but I want to make it easy for you to shop for the miso that best meets what you are looking for. I am doing it this way because when I first started buying miso, I used to buy the exact same brand my mom would buy (Yamaizumi), but being in Los Angeles, there is so much more. So much more that it was really confusing for me because they were also all Japanese brands and styles that I was not aware of.
The Major Japanese and Japanese American Miso Brands
There are a ton of brands I could have listed, but it also about product availability. So, if you can’t get the product, it does nothing to help you which is why I included a few Japanese-American brands that were started in the early 1900’s which are widely available and used in restaurants (they are also brands I grew up on and look at how I turned out).
The brands chosen and selected are based upon the criteria of: 1. availability to popularity, 2. type (a unique/distinctive type).
Established: November 1918 in Ina City, Nagano.
In the words of the president of Hanamaruki “Our business philosophy is ‘To Value Natural Ingredients and Craftsmanship.’
The making of miso is essentially a simple process. All that is required are soybeans, rice and salt. Through that wonderful natural process, fermentation, these ingredients become the healthy food that is miso. Miso is truly a gift from nature!
It is our wish to make our customers happy, and to benefit their health.
Our stance as a company is to use only the best ingredients, matched with traditional miso-making techniques and cutting-edge scientific technology. We seek to provide delicious products of the highest quality and safety, all without impacting the environment.” – Toshio Hanaoka
Established: in 1936 in Nagano, Japan, the Hayashi family started the business. Now, the 4th generation family member, Yoshihiro ‘Joshu’ Hayashi is the CEO and Chairman of the company.
From 9,843-foot elevation in the pristine ‘Japanese Alps’ of Nagano are snow-capped mountain ranges of incredible beauty. This is Hikari’s birthplace, and their home and their daily inspiration.
Hikari has also earned certified organic status which is not easy, but they believe it is worth it. So much so, Hikari Miso’s organic line of products is triple certified: USDA Certified Organic, European Union Organic, and Japanese Agricultural Standard Organic. These certification regulations disallow genetically-modified organisms in organic production.
www.ishinomiso.co.jp (Japanese language only)
Established in 1781
In the words of Ishino Miso (well roughly translated) “White miso, which has a lot of rice and low salt content, and has a short aging period, so the quality of the raw materials and the quality of the rice are reflected in the taste as it is. In addition, the short aging period means that the storage period is also short, so it is necessary to repeatedly make and prepare an appropriate amount every day without mass production. It’s easy to make white miso that can’t be deceived, but the delicate sweetness and flavor that can be obtained in this way is the charm that only white miso has. It is one of the wonderful food cultures that was born and cultivated in Kyoto that is being shared.”
Established: in 1854
Out of all the companies listed, Marukome has probably the best website to learn a thing or two about the company although I’ll include a bit about them such as their Orange County (they say Los Angeles) facility was completed in 2007 and as of 2016, their yearly sales exceed 40 billion yen (that sounds like a lot, but you do the math tho which I think is about 10 million to a billion?).
MIYAKO ORIENTAL FOODS (Cold Mountain/Yamajirushi/Kanemasa/Yamaizumi)
Established: in the early 1900’s in San Francisco, CA.
Established (Japan): possibly in 1955, and they are headquartered in Itabashi City, Japan.
Established (U.S. operations): January 26 of 1976, Miyako Oriental Foods.
Established: in the early 1900’s in Boyle Heights (Los Angeles, CA).
What I do know of Cold Mountain miso, is that it is organic, uses no GMO’s, and uses no preservatives or any artificial ingredients. Beyond that, I assume this is a house brand of Miyako Oriental Foods? (I’ll have to reach out to them to clarify this).
They really need to sell Kane masa and Yamaizumi t-shirts, and if they don’t have them, they should allow me to design some and sell them because these two brands are so iconic in the Japanese-American community.
I will have to post a pic of the Yamaizumi packaging at a later date since I have to buy it and shoot it myself since product imagery and product information is non-existent or very minimal.
Established: in 1655 and is currently on the Chita peninsula in the Aichi prefecture.
In the words of Morita “This product contains kome miso (miso made with rice) and mame miso that was fermented in wooden barrels via traditional manufacturing techniques. It is made entirely from domestically produced soybeans and rice. Blended miso of this type is referred to as “akadashi,” and is often used at establishments including traditional Japanese restaurants. It contains no chemical seasonings or preservatives, and is recommended for seafood miso soup.”
Namikura Miso Co is a family-owned, 5th generation producer that is highly regarded throughout Japan for its incredible depth of flavor and superb texture. The family prides themselves on being involved in every level of production, from hand selecting local ingredients all the way through to packaging.
SHINSYU-ICHI aka MIYASAKA JOZO CO, LTD (Miko)
Parent Company in Japan.
Established: Miyasaka Brewery Co., Ltd. was founded in 1662 in Suwa, Nagano, but eventually launched miso production in 1916 which later became the Shinsyu-ichi in 1938.
how you define the “best miso paste” to be is dependent on what you value although when it comes to product quality, Japanese miso reflects the country and culture it is from (the link is to my post “Is Japanese Food Healthy (Based on The Quality of Ingredients From Miso to Soy Sauce)?”
Another company that has invested into their marketing with a very nice write-up of their accolades:
“We are a long-established company of 350 years, but our history has been a stream of innovation, starting with the development of vitamin-fortified miso, hygienically bagged miso, and promoting expansion by the creation of the ‘Miko-chan’ brand character. We have also commercialized freeze-dried, reduced-salt and salt-free miso, and was the first in the industry to establish a sales office in America. Our most recent launch was obtaining halal food certification in Indonesia, and our innovation continues along with the development of the company.”
Established: in 1947
In the words of Wismettac: Shirakiku® is Wismettac Asian Foods’ private brand of products that originally fulfilled a demand in the Japanese markets of the United States. Shirakiku products have expanded into the Asian community in general, and are finding popularity in mainstream American grocery stores and restaurants. Shirakiku has over 6500 food and non-food items, and has been serving North America since 1947. The brand has come to be synonymous with Nishimoto Trading, and is now sold worldwide.
Where to Buy
I don’t do affiliate links, so here is my free resource: “Where to Buy Japanese Ingredients and Kitchen Products Online in the United States” (I am down to accept a free 12-pack or a bottle of whisky tho).
Common Brands in Japanese Markets
- Cold Mountain, Hanamaruki, Hikari, Kane Masa, Marukome, Shinsyu-ichi, Yamajirushi
Brands Available at Walmart to Amazon
- AMAZON: Hikari, Maruman, Marukome, Namikura, Shirakiku, Tetsujin.
- WALMART (PowerGrocery to Igourmet): Hikari, Marukome, Namikura.
Other Japanese Miso Brands Not Featured
- Horikawaya Nomura, Ishino, Maruya, Namikura, Shirakiku, Umasa, Yamabuki
Miso Brands Used in Restaurants (sold by food distributors from MTC to JFC)
- Cold Mountain, Hanamaruki, Hikari, Hishiku, Ishino, Marukome, Maruya, Yamajirushi
Japanese American Brands
- Cold Mountain (Los Angeles?), Kane masa (San Francisco), Maru-hi (Hawaii), Yamaizumi (Los Angeles)
Great Resources on the Web You Should be Reading
When it comes to miso, there seems to be a ton of websites fighting over your attention via Google for miso, although when it comes to what I do, I just fill in the cracks and connect you to content, especially when there is great content out there such as the articles below:
- THE BRESLIN: This resource is ridiculous in-depth, but I do not know how credible it is although I highly suggest perusing through it (the grammar can be off in places like my writing). The site is called the Breslin, and their article is entitled “Top 15 Best Miso Pastes Reviews in 2020.”
- FOOD52: I don’t even think I have ever read a single article on Food52 before, but the writing and how in-depth this article is, it is mind blowing. I am impressed by Coral Lee and her article “Yes, You Can Make Miso Paste at Home!” Oh, and they also have good photography to accompany the write-up.
- JUSTHUNGRY: Published way back in 2008, but that does not matter when you produced good information because “Miso Basics: A Japanese miso primer looking at different types of miso” doesn’t lose it’s relevancy.
- THE NEW YORK TIMES: This is the New York Times, so they tend to not produce a bunch of hack content although they have a ton of Amazon affiliate links with this article. Take their picks with a grain of salt, but the reason why the NYT article is interesting, is that they supposedly went out and hit up a bunch of chefs for their input on “The Best Miso, According to Chefs.” That right there is why the NYT is the NYT, well hopefully.