When John Belleme traveled to Yaita, a 66-square-mile farming village in the northern Japanese Kantō region, locals referred to him and his wife as “miso foreigners.” Circa 1979, news spread fast that two macrobiotic-living, “hairy-armed” Americans sought to learn the Asian praxis of fermenting soybeans and grains.
“No one spoke English,” Belleme says, detailing his yearlong apprenticeship at Onozaki Miso Company. The full-immersion experience, directed by founder Akiyoshi Kazama, involved early mornings cultivating the craggy mountainscape, its topography too unsuitable for rice but mild enough for barley. The 200- to 350-year-old domiciles lacked heat and running water, and at night, temperatures in the countryside dropped well below freezing. “We wrapped ourselves in clothing,” Belleme continues. “And ate three hearty meals a day.”
The first of those meals, a savory alternative to the European oatmeal breakfast, involved rice, vegetables, and a germane serving of red miso (also called the “poor man’s miso”). However hearty the dishes and genial the kotatsu — the traditional warming table around which they ate — Belleme questioned his globetrotting many times.
Although the roving would eventually materialize into the American Miso Company, today the largest organic miso manufacturer in the world — a visionary named Barry Evans funded it in 1989 — the venture was always too far ahead of its time in the States not to seem dubious.
“We were on the brink of bankruptcy,” Belleme admits. “It began to look like an impossible project.” (He sold his portion of the business in the ’90s, but remains involved in marketing and quality assurance.) American culture had not yet awakened to miso. Natural-foods restaurants used the fermented paste in salad dressings, often alongside tofu, but the contemporary holistic-living craze would not unfold until the early 2000s. Fermented drinks like saké and kombucha lurked somewhere off the horizon, making a domestic miso business seem too fanciful for initial stakeholders, most choosing to sell back their shares.
Though the factory’s Rutherfordton locale sits in the exact longitude and latitude as Yaita, the North Carolina foothills are slightly warmer than Japan’s climate, which is more similar to Massachusetts. Despite having only three basic ingredients – soybeans, grain, and salt – taste can deviate drastically depending on temperature. Ergo, special care had to be taken to manipulate the recipe without deviating from convention.
Now, adhering to century-old formalities, cooked rice is infused with a fungus called Aspergillus oryzae, or koji. After being kept at high temperatures and high humidity, the grain is mixed with cooked soybeans, chickpeas, or barley and then aged in prodigious cedar casks topped with stacked river rocks. Fermentation can last anywhere between 15 days for the delicate and nutty-tasting white miso to one year for the more robust red varieties. While the process may be expedited by conveyor belt and mechanized “hand,” mostly for profit’s sake, the methodology is still distinctly traditional.
“Our product is high-grade, with a rich taste,” says Joe Kato, the company’s current vice president and presiding miso master. Kato monitors miso quality, even making late-night trips to the factory to evaluate temperatures. He joined the 23-person team more than 20 years ago, though his legacy as fermentation emcee was bisected in the early 2000s when he left to open Lexington’s Heiwa Shokudo. Kato has since sold the Japanese-inspired eatery, but miso from the American Miso Company can still be found on the menu. “We do it the old way, without machines.”
In fact, adhering to mores that predate the Neolithic era distinguishes the product, says Leila Bakkum. As National Sales Director for Great Eastern Sun, the distributive arm of the American Miso Company, she has spent the last 22 years getting miso into Earth Fare, co-ops, and 92 percent of Whole Foods stores across America. “Many producers are Americanized,” the former organic farmer notes. “We honor that labor-intensive practice by doing virtually everything by hand.”
Bakkum’s own taste for miso developed in childhood when her sister joined the macrobiotic movement. The diet dates back to 1797 and dictates that followers should avoid refined foods in pursuit of a balanced life. Though popular in the ’70s, the vegetable- and soy-laden lifestyle has since been traded out for veganism, vegetarianism, and the likes.
Regardless, the recent swing toward all-things organic and non-GMO has only made demand for the probiotic and antioxidant-packed paste mushroom. “Nearly every time you open a cooking magazine, there is at least one recipe with miso as an ingredient,” says Bakkum.
While the Rutherfordton factory produces 1,500 tons annually, avid at-home cooks are subbing miso for Parmesan in dairy-free pestos or coupling the stuff with maple syrup. The Asheville-Hendersonville foodie fusion scene, celebrated for unlikely culinary pairings, is also pushing the full-bodied umami profile. Doc Chey’s Noodle House, Gan-Shan Station, and Heiwa Shokudo all use the domestically sourced miso in menu items.
“Most soups are made with a dashi or white variety,” says Brook Messina, owner and chef at Doc Chey’s. The pan-Asian dive on Biltmore Avenue folds yellow miso, a sweet and mild variety, into a ginger salad dressing. Gochujang, an in-house Korean hot sauce, also features the fermented paste coupled with mouth-searing red chili. “We like using a local company and product,” he adds. “It’s the best tasting miso we’ve had.”
Perhaps quality is rooted in the hands-on approach. As Kato maintains, “most producers never even touch the rice or beans.” But the American Miso Company deliberately basks in each step of the process.
The American Miso Company is located at 4225 Maple Creek Road in Rutherfordton. For more information, call 828-287-2940.