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Mar 30 2011

Miso Soup Provides Some Radiation Protection

The last several weeks have certainly been intense as we have watched the heart-wrenching tragedy in Japan unfold.  For the first time ever, most of us have seen, via video, the extraordinary power of a tsumani, certainly a shocking and humbling experience.  I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to imagine where one starts in the cleanup process, much less rebuilding a home or waiting until something is available to rent while also enduring massive shortages of all necessities.

The tragic loss of homes, farmland and community members, however, pales next to the  man made disaster involving nuclear power.  With cesium, radium and plutonium entering the food supply, the drinking water, the ocean and the atmosphere, we’re talking terrible, terrible damage and significant danger to the Japanese for generations to come.

In coastal Santa Cruz  we made news when our harbor was damaged by the tsunami and the low-lying areas of our city were evacuated.  This put our residents on edge  (though lots of surfers headed straight for the beach to ride the “big one”).  But the edginess didn’t pass after the tsunami.

I work in a community-focused organic foods store where we have been besieged with questions on how to protect ourselves should a full meltdown occur.   All of our radiation-protective supplements were sold out in two days.

While government officials have assured us that there is minimal chance of danger, some doctors and nuclear scientists haven’t been quite so quick to tell us that we’re not in danger.  No one knows how much blow-over will occur across the 5000 mile Pacific between Japan and our West Coast and how much low-level radiation exposure over weeks or months is too much.  Will we see an uptick of thyroid cancer or leukemia several decades from now?  Probably not, but we don’t know.

Due to this concern, I decided to make a country-style miso soup at the store on Monday to provide a recipe and instruction on how to properly make miso and how miso can help to protect our bodies against radiation exposure.

In 1945 after the bombings in Japan, Dr. Tatsuichiro Akizuki fed his staff and patients a strict diet of miso, brown rice, seaweeds and other food to help prevent radiation sickness from radiation exposure. He saved everyone in his hospital, while many others in the area died from radiation sickness.  Apparently none of his staff or patients contracted leukemia later.

Protective foods include sea vegetables, dark greens and yellow squash, fermented soy products such as miso, natto, soy sauce, etc., and whole grains.

At this time there is no indication that any of our food supply is contaminated and it’s very likely that it won’t be contaminated from the Japanese power plants.  Nevertheless, those of us who live on the Coast are on vulnerable ground — and we have three nuclear power plants on the California Coast.  Given that there are nuclear power plants along the entire Eastern seaboard and throughout our country, it’s wise to know what could help in case of a disaster, however unlikely it might be.

Miso is made by adding a yeast mold (kojikin) to soy beans and other ingredients, and allowing the mixture to ferment from weeks to years, depending on the type of miso.  In addition to probiotics and enzymes, miso is high in manganese, zinc, phosphorus and copper.  It is also high in protein and dietary fiber.

Here is a list of the types of miso:

  • hatcho miso (made from soybeans)
  • kome miso (made from white rice and soybeans)
  • mugi miso (made from barley and soybeans)
  • soba miso (made from buckwheat and soybeans)
  • genmai miso (made from brown rice and soybeans)
  • natto miso (made from ginger and soybeans)

I like using the mugi miso made from barley and soybeans as it has a nice full-bodied flavor.  However, if you are a miso newbie, you might prefer the kome or white miso, which is quite mild.  Miso can be purchased in many supermarkets, all natural food stores and online.

A traditional broth used for making miso includes bonito (fish) flakes, kombu or other sea vegetables and water.  I use vegetable broth instead, which works perfectly.  You can also use plain water, but adding a broth (low sodium is smart as miso can be high in sodium) gives more flavor to the finished soup.

The trick to making miso is that it must not boil.  Miso has a number of probiotics and enzymes that are destroyed if the miso becomes too hot.  It should never get so hot that it burns the back of your throat.

Traditional miso soup contains clean water or a broth, a land vegetable (mushrooms, squash, bok choy, kale, daikon radish, carrots, etc.), a sea vegetable (wakame is traditional but any sea vegetable is good), miso and garnish (tofu, scallions, etc.)  However, you can make a hearty miso soup with a lot of ingredients, which is precisely what I did at New Leaf.

I cooked Japanese sweet potato, mushrooms, asparagus, baby spinach and onions in the broth just until they were tender.  I mixed the rich barley miso with lukewarm water (about 2-1/2 teaspoons to a cup of water) in a separate container and waited until the soup was no longer scalding hot before adding it.  I then added a package of organic firm tofu chopped into squares, a package Sea Tangle kelp noodles and scallions at the end.

Kelp noodles are amazing.  They are simply raw noodles made from sea vegetables, salt made from seaweed and water.  They are fat-free, gluten-free and very low in carbohydrates and calories.  They have a surprisingly neutral flavor and a texture similar to  rice or mung bean noodles.  You can find them in natural food stores, Asian stores or online.

There is a lot of information on the Internet if you are interested in learning more about a traditional Japanese diet or about miso recipes.  Miso can be used to make salad dressing, and used in sauces and other savory dishes.  Kelp noodles work well in salads and stir frys.

More than anything, I think it is very important that we keep a healthy perspective about what is occurring, take care of ourselves, but don’t become overly worried or stressed.

Patricia Rain
is an author, educator, culinary historian, and owner of The Vanilla Company (www.vanillaqueen.com), a socially conscious, product-driven information and education site dedicated to the promotion of pure, natural vanilla, and the support of vanilla farmers worldwide. She also does culinary presentations for food professionals, cooking schools, trade shows, food fairs, and private groups, and is a regular radio and TV guest.

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