Searching for Koji in Paraguay

I received the following email from William Mathis, a Peace Corps volunteer from the U.S. serving in Paraguy who is also a fermentation enthusiast:

For some time I have wanted to try my hand at fermenting my own miso, but have not for one reason or another. Now, as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Paraguay I have plenty of time to pursue endeavors of fermentation, even the most time consuming like miso. However, despite the many blessings of life in the South American countryside, the availability of Japanese products, knowledge of fermentation practices, and ingredients are not exactly common. I knew that tracking down koji here would not be a simple task, but I still wanted to try.

After a few months living out in the far east of the country, I discovered a small community called Colonia Yguasu, home to Japanese immigrants and their descendants, only a thirty-minute bus ride from where I live. I figured that if there were anywhere to find koji in Paraguay, it would be there.

On my first attempt to find the elusive koji I went to the Japanese grocery store and began asking around. I saw a group of middle-aged Japanese ladies shopping for produce. I approached them and asked if they or anyone they knew made their own miso. The women were slightly baffled and quite a bit amused that a young, obviously foreign young man would be asking them about a practice that only their grandmothers had undertaken. Basically, they told me, they were sure some old ladies in the community still made their own homemade miso, but they were not sure who or how to find them. They directed me instead to a Japanese cultural center nearby for more information. I went and inquired at this Asociación Japonesa, but the staff there had basically the same reaction: surely there are people, old women, who make miso, but we do not know how to find them.

On my next trip to the colony I was having lunch at a Japanese restaurant and asked the owner, who had served a delicious miso soup, if she knew where I might find someone who makes their own miso as I was interested in making it myself. At first she said no, she did not think anyone did, and then she changed her mind. “Yes,” she told me. “There is still one woman here who makes miso. Her name is Señora Seki and she sells it to the grocery store in town.” She wrote down the name for me on a small piece of paper and also gave me the name of the supermarket’s owner to whom I should inquire. After lunch I headed to the grocery store, intending to talk to the manager about this Sra. Seki. But before I did I noticed in the refrigerator in the far back of the store a package with a simple label that read “Homemade Miso” and listed a phone number below. After purchasing it and leaving the store, I immediately called the number and spoke with a woman who said that it was her mother who made the miso and that while she was not currently in town, would be happy to meet me another time. Finally, I had tracked down the source, the last woman in Paraguay to make miso, and my last chance at finding koji.

Later that week I headed back to Colonia Yguasu and called the woman, Miriam, again. She met me in an old Toyota pick up truck and drove us out of town down a long dirt road. I felt like I was meeting a rare, mythical creature, a kind of miso unicorn. Miriam introduced me to her mother and left us to talk. Her name is Hiroko Seki and stands just over five feet tall, with large glasses and was carefully bundled up in numerous layers on this rainy autumn day. A widow, she lives alone about a kilometer down the road from her daughter’s farmhouse. We spoke for a long time about her life and family, getting to know one another a little bit as we sat on a set of miniature chairs on the patio. After a while she looked at me with a curiosity in her eyes and asked, “So you want to learn how to make miso?” She then led me through a long discussion of how to make koji and miso, and then showed me the room where she has about seven 200L barrels of miso in various stages of fermentation. At the end of our meeting she asked if I would like to try her food, an offer I eagerly accepted.

Hiroko Seki with a bag of her homemade koji.

Hiroko Seki with a bag of her homemade koji.

I have adopted her method, which is usually for a 200L batch, for a 20L bucket or crock and want to share it. It is as follows:

5 kilos soy

3.5 kilos salt

3 kilos koji

Wash the soy and leave to soak overnight in water. The next morning cook until it is soft and then grind up into a paste, saving the water used to cook the beans. Mix the koji in the soy water and add 3.3 kilos of the salt. Put this mixture into the crock or bucket. Then cover this with a CLEAN cloth. On top of the cloth she puts a bag, like the kind that onions are sold in, filled with clean stones to weigh down the miso mix. This makes sure the weight is evenly distributed and full across the container, without having to find a plate or top that is the perfect size. Cover this with another cloth. After 3-4 days she removes the top cloth and the stones and adds the remaining .2 kilos of salt on top of the lower cloth, replaces the weight and the upper cloth and then covers the whole thing with some kind of plastic, fastened tightly around the outside with a rope or something to keep it in place and keep any bugs or other cultures out.

This recipe is essentially the same as that found in Wild Fermentation, except for a few slight differences, such as the bag of stones for weight, that I thought were interesting. Plus it is always great to hear the specifics of a technique developed through time and tradition!