This is probably the version of Miso soup Western people are most familiar with, since it’s the one almost always served at sushi places. Still, you should remember: this is a miso soup, not the miso soup.
It’s easy to see why this version is so popular, though: simple, delicious, and easy to match with any Japanese dish, it’s always tempting to fall back on this recipe when the time comes to make 1-dish 1-soup.
Here’s another of many possible variants on Osuimono, a simple clear broth that we use as the main alternative to miso soup. As always with Osuimono, this recipe is simple: a light, delicate broth with a couple of ingredients suspended in it, nothing more.
Whichever variant you choose, you’ll find there’s really not a lot to Osuimono. It takes a certain sensibility to appreciate a soup as austere as this one. But in Japan, this kind of thing is deeply appreciated.
Literal translations have a way of sounding ridiculous, and none more so than Sunomono’s: it comes out as “vinegarable thing” or “that which you put vinegar on.” This concept covers a whole family of dainty Japanese salads flavored with a subtle, vinegar-based marinade and sometimes (but not necessarily) topped with seafood.
Ancient documents show that Japanese people have been making sunomono-style dishes at least since writing was first introduced to our country. That’s over 1300 years ago!
Now, sunomono is not exactly a side dish: instead, it’s what we call a “hashi-yasume” (箸休め) which – and here comes another of those crazy literal translations – means “chopstick vacation”. Less poetically – but more helpfully – my dictionary glosses it as a “palate-cleansing side dish.”
You know how sometimes, in a fancy French restaurant, they will serve a tiny dish of sorbet between courses to refresh your palate? Hashi-yasume is a little bit like that: a tiny, refreshing dish that contrasts with and accentuate the experience of eating the main dishes in the meal. That’s why sunomono is always served in very small portions: it’s not really a dish, it’s a holiday for your chopsticks!
One last thing about this recipe: in Japan, you would make sunomono with rice vinegar. Now, if you’re a purist with money to burn, you can certainly find rice vinegar in Europe and North America, too. But we realized a long time ago that good apple cider vinegar works just as well for these kinds of recipes, and costs much less, so that’s what we use here in Montreal.