Learning the art of Shinshu miso

NAGANO - Miso is a local traditional seasoning that represents the Shinshu region, the former name of Nagano Prefecture, which ships the nation's largest volume of the fermented soybean paste.

Glossy and golden yellow, the nutritious seasoning made of soybeans, malted rice and salt has been valued by locals as a source of energy since long ago.

Miso came to be sold all over the world after World War II thanks to its high quality and a developed distribution network.

There was a time when miso became unpopular because of diversifying diets and a trend of reducing salt intake, but its health benefits were reevaluated and the market has been expanding to foreign nations where washoku traditional Japanese cuisine has been booming. Fermented soybean paste is once again on the rise.

At a culinary school in Denver in 2005, a Japanese sales representative was promoting miso to about 15 students by describing it as a healthy and high-protein food.

Daisuke Takizawa of Nagano-based miso maker Marukome Co. tried his best to convince them that miso was a protein-rich seasoning - but the chefs-to-be were hard to win over. Only two of them made a purchase, according to Takizawa.

The company opened its first overseas office in Los Angeles in 2004. At the time, companies in Japan's food industry were seeking out new opportunities in foreign countries. Takizawa's English was good, so the Nagano native was chosen to promote miso in the United States.

Miso is a food dear to Takizawa's heart, but this Japanese seasoning could not easily be found in restaurants or supermarkets in the country.

Japanese cuisine itself was hardly known, except in major cities. He embarked on a mission to spread awareness of miso in the United States. He targeted Asian restaurants and retailers since their food culture has similarities to that of Japan.

Many Americans who visited these restaurants and grocery stores were health-conscious, so Takizawa emphasised nutrition and served his own dishes made with miso.

He visited about 1,300 places during his three-year assignment in the United States.

He also targeted young people training in cooking.

Promoting a different culture there was tough, but a buoyant economy at the time kept his business strong when a string of Japanese restaurants opened up.

The export volume of miso in 2006 doubled compared to ten years earlier. Marukome's US sales, sluggish at first, doubled in the three years after Takizawa took up his position in the country.

Building on existing Asian culture in the United States to break into the market proved to be a successful strategy.

But it was in 2007, just before he returned to Japan, when he truly felt a good response. At a food fair in Anaheim, a city southeast of Los Angeles, he met a local visitor who recognised miso soup.

He was impressed there was finally an American who recognised the fermented paste, which is primarily a seasoning in cooking.

Marukome currently has six overseas branches in North America, Europe and Asia. Takizawa, who oversaw the North American market, is now setting his sights on Asia, where economic growth continues.

"I'll seize the washoku boom opportunity for sure. I see huge potential," he said. He believes miso will be known some day as a common word in Asia.