Carrying on a Centuries-Old Japanese Tradition in Massachusetts

What exactly does “traditional” mean? Is it something passed down from your grandmother? Does it represent food preparation without the use of modern conventional cooking methods? What about something that has been around for at least a thousand years? Miso first came about in Japan in 800 AD, and is still going strong in Conway, Massachusetts thanks to Christian and Gaella Elwell who have been carrying on the tradition of miso at South River Miso for thirty-three years.

Struck by the beauty and “unspoiled atmosphere” of the Valley, Christian and Gaella decided to bring their business to Conway. Tucked away from the road in a rustic wooden building that overlooks the South River, it is clear to see why. The Japanese inspired decorations inside the building certainly shed light on South River Miso’s commitment to tradition.

In a world that relies so heavily on over-the-counter drugs and prescriptions as a way to cure our ailments, the healing power of food tends to be forgotten. “We’re all kind of uprooted from food,” said Christian. He was inspired by the work of Weston A. Price, a dentist who discovered that perfect health stems from eating unprocessed, traditional diets. “It was out of that mind view that we decided to make miso,” he said, as a way to connect people back to their food.

Miso is made through the fermentation of grains and beans. The fermentation process is responsible for miso’s numerous health benefits. Miso aids in the digestion and absorption of nutrients and strengthens the digestive system. Traditional miso is made with either rice or barley and soybeans, although South River Miso uses a variety of different grains and beans in order to create their ten different types of miso.

A Peek Into the Fermentation Barrels

The process of creating miso involves fermenting the grain in two steps. First, the culture is added to the grains (rice, barley, etc.) and the mixture undergoes incubation. The result of the first step of fermentation is referred to the “koji.” The fermented grain is mixed with cooked beans and salt, and is then fermented in large wooden vats for anywhere between three weeks and fifteen years. The longer the miso is fermented, the darker the color becomes. The different colored misos yield very different flavors, aromas, and protein levels.

In keeping with the Japanese tradition, all miso (with the exception of the white miso) at South River Miso is mixed by foot. Everyone involved in the mixing process wears clean cotton socks and plastic over their legs, so that no bacteria can get into the miso. Christian prefers this method because it adds an element of “human energy” lacking in many modern foods, their miso is created “with intention and attention.” During the mixing process, mature, already fermented, miso is added to the young miso. This jump starts the fermentation process and connects the miso back to its creation. Much like humans, miso has deep ancestral roots, and South River Miso is “nourishing” the tradition of making miso, as well as nourishing individuals.

Samantha Marsh & Ali Touloupas

Winter 2012 Amherst Food Warriors

This post is from one of the interns in the Real Time Farms Food Warrior Internship Program. These interns are collecting data, pictures, and video on the growing practices of our nation’s farms, gathering food artisans’ stories, and documenting farmers markets. We all deserve to know where our food comes from! Boring legalese we feel we must include: this was written by a real live person who has their own opinions, which we value, but that do not necessary reflect, though they may (or may not), reflect the values and opinions of Real Time Farms. That is for you to guess and us to know.

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One Response to Carrying on a Centuries-Old Japanese Tradition in Massachusetts

  1. catbird365 says:

    I love their miso and had no idea that it was mixed “by foot.” I’m going to try not to think about that when I enjoy it 😉

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