Tyler Cowen is the only person I know who talks about the great value of travel. Schools should teach it, he says. I agree. If you’ve read The Shangri-La Diet, you may remember the turning point was a visit to Paris when I inexplicably lost my appetite. You don’t know that my belief in fermented food — to be healthy, we need to eat lots of fermented food — also began with foreign travel: A trip to Japan.
When I got back to Berkeley from Beijing a few months ago, I looked around my kitchen: What should I make? I came up blank. Huh? I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t think of anything. (In Beijing I had never cooked.) The first few days back in Berkeley I made grilled fish. The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis. Then I went to the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. At a Japanese food booth, including miso soup packets, I suddenly remembered: For my last nine months in Berkeley, after a trip to Japan in January 2008, I’d been eating a lot of miso soup. Every day. Which I’d never done before. Nine months was long enough to block out what I’d cooked before January 2008 yet short enough to be forgotten after three months in China.
Why did I start eating so much miso soup? In a Tokyo supermarket I had noticed they sold a lot of miso paste. Maybe there were ten types for sale. When I got home from Japan, that experience inspired me to buy a tub of miso paste. I’d add one or two tablespoons to a few cups of water, along with vegetables and thinly-sliced meat (plus vinegar and hot sauce). It was so delicious and easy that I started making miso soup every day. I went through five or six tubs of miso.
The miracle was how easy it was — that one ingredient (miso) should so easily produce such a delicious result. No one spice will do that. Garlic alone won’t do that. Ginger alone won’t do that. One ingredient was so compelling, pulled me so far from my previous cooking that I completely forgot about it after a three-month absence. During those nine months, while I was eating all that miso soup, I didn’t wonder why miso made such a difference. But when I finally thought of the umami hypothesis — we like umami, sour, and complex flavors so that we will eat more bacteria-laden food; bacteria tend to produce those flavors — all of sudden it made sense. Miso was so tasty because it was fermented. It was so tasty because it was so missing.