Originally posted Sept 16, ’20 and updated on Sept 27, ’22: slight formatting tweaks.
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.
Many of these brands are multi-generational brands that date back centuries which is common in Japan (and is also evident in the Japanese American community). “The country has 33,000 businesses at least a century old” via the BBC .Providence Restaurant’s Michael Cimarusti also has a great bit on NPR of his experience in Japan.
DISCLOSURE (Updated 2/19/22): I may receive a commission when you click my links and make purchases, although it is only with two entities out of the eighteen vendors provided because I value balanced content over a buck (you can simply share this article, but I am still down for donations for my whisky budget).
This post about Japanese miso is a top-ranking blog post because I am not in a corporate setting. If I were, I would/could be bragging about “time on page” (the time you spend on this page, the default metric is “want “the longer, the better”), but I am constantly working on ways to be more succinct. I want you to get through this article as fast as possible and absorb the information you are looking for through my highlighted fields below, although the details are throughout the body.
The Best Japanese Miso for You
I will provide you all the necessary information to help you make the “best” decision, but I will not cite one specific brand because there is no one brand that reigns supreme. It simply comes down to “what best works for you.”Japanese companies compete on quality versus marketing buzzwords.
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 by segments (“Japanese American brands”) or by markets (“Japanese miso available at Walmart”).
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 on 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, it is also due to the type of koji used (soybean, rice, barley).
- Shiro (white) miso
- Aka (red) miso
- Awase (mixed/blended) miso
Mustard Sauce to Miso Paste, the “Foreign Ingredient”
On another note, I do not say “miso paste” because miso is a paste, and Americans only do that to help them identify miso. Otherwise, we would all be saying peanut butter paste, mustard sauce, or mayonnaise sauce.
I do not say “miso paste” because that is what it is, just like I do not say peanut butter paste, mustard sauce, or mayonnaise sauce, it is just miso (it only comes in paste form).If you want to nerd out, I highly recommend that you read Wikipedia.org content on miso
General Rules Regarding the Color of Japanese 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 Japanese 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).
Recipe idea: If you’re looking to impress, I highly suggest Chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s marinated black cod recipe (Hikari Miso and sake marinade). I think this is one of Robert De Niro’s favorite dishes.This recipe is a panty/boxer dropper for a date night for fish lovers.
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.
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).Miso is Japanese, so if you want to experience the culture and history behind the ingredient, you are off to a good start being here.
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 9 (11) 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 and popularity, 2. type (a unique/distinctive type of miso).
Listed in Alphabetical Order
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.’– Toshio Hanaoka, Hanamaruki
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.”
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.”– Ishino Miso
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.”– Morita
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 Brand)
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” is dependent on what you value although when it comes to product quality, Japanese miso reflects the country and culture it is from (check out my blog post ‘Is Japanese Food Healthy Based on The Quality of Ingredients From Miso to Soy Sauce’)?”These Japanese miso products exemplify “made in Japan.”
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.”– Miko Brand
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.– Shirakiku, Wismettac
Where to Buy Japanese Miso Online
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).
If you wondering if you have to refrigerate miso: “The best way to store miso, considered a living food, is to keep it in the refrigerator. If you would like to store it in a freezer, the temperature must stay higher than 25F or -5C” via Hikari Miso.A “living food.”
(Sorry for not including links before, but I had been messaged at how hard it was finding many of the above products which is why I finally added links to buy online directly. From my own experience, I agree, it was difficult finding online vendors which is why I also highly suggest visiting a Japanese market).
|Hanamaruki||• Shiro (white) miso, 500g, Amazon, $20.99|
• Red miso, 500g, Amazon, $23.99
• Red miso, Kobe Mini Mart, $4.99
|Hikari||• Organic (white), 17.6oz, Amazon $8.67|
• Organic (kodawattemasu), 26.4oz, Amazon, $19.94
• Organic (white), 17.6oz, King Soopers, $9.99
• Organic (white) 17.6oz, Instacart, $11.99
• Organic (kodawattemasu) 26.4oz, GohanMarket, $11.98
|Ishino||• Saikyo miso, 500g, Amazon, $36.66|
• Saikyo miso, 12/4.4lb, NYMTC (wholesale only)
|Marukome||• Organic, 375g/13.2oz, Amazon, $10.19|
• Organic/reduced sodium, 375g/13.2oz, Amazon, $11.16
• Paste/miso soup dashi, 750g, Amazon, $19.80
• Gluten free, vegan miso, 13.2oz, Amazon, $10.19
• Organic/reduced sodium, 375g/13.2oz, Gohan, $8.98
• Instant miso soup, 36 servings, JapaneseTaste, $17.95
• Organic, 375g/13.2oz, King Soopers, $6.99
• Organic, 375g/13.2oz, Marukome, $7.00
• 2year, “Special release miso,” 300g, Marukome, $11.98
• Organic, 375g/13.2oz, Walmart, $17.57
|• White miso, 14oz, Albertsons, $7.99|
• Kyoto red, 14oz, MTCKitchen, $6.80
• Light yellow, 14oz, MTCKitchen, $6.80
• Red miso, 14oz, MTCKitchen, $6.80
• White miso, 14oz, MTCKitchen, $6.80
• Light yellow, 14oz, Instacart, $4.99
• Red miso, 14oz, Instacart, $4.99
• White miso, 14oz, WholeFoods, $3.59
|Yamajirushi||• Shiro(white) miso, 32oz (907g), MTCKitchen, $8.10|
|Kanemasa||• Mild Shiro(white) miso, 32oz, PacificMercantile, $6.79|
|Morita||• (only available in-store).|
|Namikura||• Fig miso/dark brown, 17.6oz/500g, Amazon, $16.99|
• Red miso (aged 6 months), 2.2lbs, Amazon, $14.99
• Kyoto style organic white miso, 2.2lbs, Amazon, $14.94
• Kyoto style organic white miso, 17.6oz/500g, AF, $9.99
• Kyoto style organic red miso, 2.2lbs, MilkSt, $10.95
• Kyoto style organic white miso, 2.2lbs, MilkSt, $10.95
• Yuzu miso, 5.64oz, Williams Sonoma, $14.95
• Organic white miso, 17.6oz/500g, YummyBazaar, $5.95
|Miko Brand||• Aka/shiro miso, 500g, Amazon, $12.48|
• Aka(red) miso, 35.2oz, Amazon, $12.99
|Shirakiku||• Shiro(white) miso, 35.27oz (2pk), Amazon, $19.24|
• Aka(red) miso, 35.27oz (2pk), Amazon, $21.84
• Aka(red) miso, 2.2lb, Amazon, $12.95
• Shiro(white) miso, 2lbs/3.2oz, CoCoIsland, $7.49
• Shiro(white) miso, 35.27oz (2pk), Grocery, $20.78
• Shiro(white) miso, 2lbs/3.2oz, PacificMercantile, $5.98
• Shiro(white) miso, 35.27oz (2pk), Walmart, $29.96
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)
In the U.S., foods are heavily marketed as healthy with every buzzword conceivable on its packaging. Even the commonly found Kikkoman soy sauce is a non-GMO, no HFCS, no preservatives, and naturally brewed (and a 100 years old too), but you won’t see it all over the packaging like all the above miso brands.Yet, brand’s like Ocean Halo and Robert Mock culturally appropriate and play off of Japanese products all day, everyday.
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.