Miso and Lent

by Roberta Adair

A few days ago, I opened up the cool crawlspace under our dining room table and pulled out a big pot of miso I put there ten months ago. Miso is squashed fermented soybeans and is used in a lot of Japanese cooking – most famously miso soup, but also in stir fries, marinades, and vegetable dips.

Until two years ago, I simply bought it in small plastic tubs at our neighborhood grocery store, but then a friend invited me to join her and a few other women for a miso-making class.

I plopped the pot on the counter and gingerly took off the lid. Will the top layer be as slimy and funky as the year before? (It was.) Will it have worked – meaning will the kōji (fermenting bacteria) have done its job with the smashed up beans and transformed the mush into miso? (Also yes.)

After scraping off the top and putting the rest into several containers, I wiped up a little bit I dropped onto the counter with my finger and tasted it. It was salty, tangy, grainy, fermented, and familiar. It was also something quite different than what I put in the pot last year. It had transformed.

Ten months earlier, a professional miso maker gave me dried beans with instructions on how to soak and boil them the day before we were to meet together. Then when we all gathered in a small room in a community center, she walked us through the process of smashing the beans, mixing in the salt and kōji, and squashing the mixture some more.

My favorite step was to make small balls and SPLAT! SPLAT! SPLAT! them into a container to get rid of air bubbles. It was loud and felt almost violent – and oh so satisfying.

As I consider the different steps in the process, I keep thinking about miso as a metaphor for the Christian life, one I get to regularly touch, see, taste, and smell.

Soaking the beans reminds me of being immersed in a safe community. It’s comfortable. I’m not yet required to change, but I’m in an environment preparing me for change. It’s the least painful part of the process but is still important.

Boiling is the next step, which is a process that involves purification and pain. The result is softening (“humbling”) and is necessary for a big transformation.

Squashing follows and involves the beans changing shape but their essence remaining the same. Starting as beans and ending as paste, they are then mixed with salt and kōji to preserve the mixture and start the ten-month process of transformation. Koji works like “yeast in the bean paste” (bacteria in the miso) just as the Holy Spirit works in us.

The beans then sit in a dark, undisturbed place. This is where fermentation takes place and where simple beans that would otherwise rot become nourishing and delicious. A weight is placed on top—a “burden” that makes it more difficult for air to enter and allow mold to grow too quickly.

This process is a picture (albeit imperfect) of sanctification: being made into something better over time. After sitting in the cool crawlspace under our dining room table for ten months, the beans underwent a chemical transformation, and squashed beans—voila!—became miso. The process involved breaking, smashing, mixing, and splatting. And it involved waiting, literally being hidden underground, and not being disturbed for a long season.

Now, as I use my “labor of love” to make miso soup, miso chicken, and miso salad dressing, I think about . . .

  • Phases in my life when I was overly comfortable and didn’t feel pressured to change or grow.
  • Hard seasons in friends’ lives that are lonely, unseen, and exhausting. They are seeking to trust God in the dark without seeing a whole lot of fruit or answers to prayer.
  • Tragic revelations in the lives of public Christians who missed out on the fermenting phase and peaked while still raw beans. As their rottenness is revealed and they give off a big stink, the result is broken families, fractured churches, and disoriented followers.
  • Those who have submitted to and practiced the way of Christ who are in turn nourishing those around them, providing a richness and complexity to their families and communities. To paraphrase Matthew 5:13, they are “the umami of the world.”
  • The fact that the process can’t be sped up through more effort. More squeezing, more pounding, more splatting, or more salt and kōji won’t help. Maturity – Christlikeness – can only happen over time, in darkness, and through waiting.

Miso-making typically coincides with the season of Lent, and I find myself thinking about the way of Jesus being dying and resurrection. His invitation to transforming us, to transforming me, requires some kind of breaking and pain.

Even as I write this, I’m making plans with friends to make miso again in late February. What started as a one-time thing is becoming a yearly habit and (may I say it?) something like a spiritual practice. And I’m thankful.

~~~~~~~~

Originally from Pennsylvania (USA), Roberta lived in Kosovo for three years before getting married and moving to northern Japan in 2012. She and her husband partner with a Japanese church and have four young and energetic boys. She enjoys hiking, camping, and having friends over for average and boisterous meals.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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