Miso, the fermented soybean paste, has been competing for World’s Greatest Condiment for centuries. And for the past six years, David Chang has quietly been rethinking it, producing small batches of miso-like pastes made from other legumes and seeds. He calls them hozon.
Chang became obsessed with the idea of making his own miso while traveling in Japan six years ago, where he found the highest-quality stuff—the stuff he was most interested in cooking with—was either extremely expensive or not exported at all.
“When you taste a great shiro miso, it’s a culinary epiphany,” he told me over the phone. “I didn’t know it could taste so sweet and nutty—it’s almost like butter.”
Chang spent time studying various fermentation techniques in Kyoto, and now his umami-developing Momofuku Lab, which merged with Kaizen Trading Co., operates out of the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., with three full-time employees.
“Our goal was to make the best fermented products in the world, but without using soybeans,” Chang says. So the lab uses legumes and grains—say, chickpeas or sunflower seeds—to produce interesting variations. One of the earliest tests was a miso-esque nut paste made from California pistachios (which turned out to be far too expensive to produce regularly, Chang notes), but the focus now is on local Northeastern grains, such as spelt and barley.
“But the key isn’t the legume,” Chang says. “The key is koji.”
That’s Aspergillus oryzae, a grain-loving mold also used to make sake, certain kinds of pickles, and soy sauce. If you doubt its allure, please note that Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation, wrote that before he started growing his own koji, he wouldn’t have believed it was possible to “fall in love with a mold.”
To make hozon, rice is first inoculated with koji, then mashed up with cooked legumes and salt and left to ferment in a controlled environment (the traditional miso ratio is about 2 to 1, legumes to koji). The paste might look like nothing special, varying in colors depending on the grain, and in texture depending on the coarseness of the mash. But what’s happening underneath is the slow and steady building of flavor: As time goes by, the mold’s digestive enzymes are changing the composition of the paste as they break it down, while lactic acid and yeasts grow, contributing to the complex umami flavors.
I got a sample of dark, nearly black rye bonji (Momofuku’s parallel-universe soy sauce) and a tiny tub of grainy, Marmite-colored sunflower seed hozon, along with a smooth, spicy orange chickpea hozon, and cooked with all three for weeks, trying to figure out what made these products so special.
The bonji, which I could have mistaken for extremely high-grade soy sauce, seemed too good to mix or cook. I drizzled it on kale leaves right off the grill, instead of salt, and used it to finish a bowl of hot rice and scrambled eggs.
I put the hozons in a miso-mustard salad dressing and used it to dip raw vegetables, and to marinate meat. On a weirdly cold summer day, I diluted a tablespoon or so with dashi to make a simple miso soup. It didn’t have the fatty intensity of Momofuku’s hozon ramen, of course, but it was delicious, with an edge of complex sweetness and a soft, mellow, cheesy sort of funk, like a block of excellent stinky parmesan. It was almost hard to believe that all these rich, meaty flavors were vegan.
Everything the ingredients touched seemed to become immediately more intense and interesting (and when I used a heavy hand, far too intense). I quickly learned that deploying hozon correctly requires serious restraint, since in addition to being so flavorful, it’s powerfully salty.
In Japan, artisanal miso in all of its regional variations is highly valued by serious chefs and home cooks. But in the U.S. it’s still early days. “I think in about 20 years, people will know a lot more about soy sauce and miso,” Chang says, and a customer base will grow. But for now, the hozon and bonji are being produced on a very small scale. The products are available retail only occasionally through Quinciple, or wholesale to restaurants. (Hozon makes appearances on the menus at New York’s Estela, Eleven Madison Park, and Jean-Georges, along with many of the Momofuku group’s own restaurants.)
The challenges to growing the production are time and space—long-fermented salty misos take a minimum of six months but can go on fermenting for years in crocks, molding over and slowly developing their flavors below the surface. Chang compares the operation to making country ham, citing Tennessee’s great Allan Benton as a model: “If you’re making country ham, you need to age it at least eight months, and you need to sell something in between.” Benton, who cures some of his hams for more than a year, found that bacon was a faster thing to produce and sell between hams.
Chang’s bacon is Ssäm Sauce, a sharp, slightly sweet Korean hot sauce he was able to scale up so quickly that it’s recently been stocked by Whole Foods (you'll also find it on the table at Fuku, his brand new fried-chicken sandwich restaurant in Manhattan's East Village). It’s not as thrilling as a tub of chickpea hozon, but it’s way easier to get your hands on.