Miso, comfort and a Catalonian funeral

Anna Jones introduced me to miso. I first cooked with it spread on open halves of aubergine, roasted in the oven and balanced on a plate of sticky rice. When I travelled around Japan later that year I found a market selling 20 kinds of miso in a town in the Japanese Alps. The flavours ranged from sweet to bitter, pungent with garlic to sickly from extreme fermentation.

Fresh apples in the Japanese Alps and udon with raw egg and tempura shavings

Our last meal in the back streets of Tokyo was the first (and last!) time we would eat our favourite meal: fresh udon mixed with raw egg. As we enthusiastically lathered udon noodles with sweet miso paste we wondered why it had taken so long to add it to the mix! Since groaning into our capsule beds with sickened, bloated stomachs that night I have learned that (just like vinegar and sauerkraut) fermented substances are best in minimal quantities…

Fast forward to last month where Anna Jones reintroduced me to the yellow paste as I discovered yet another tomato soup recipe…

(Side note to mention A Girl Called Jack here: Single mother eating on a benefits budget who famously taught people to go f**k their Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup, for a cheaper, healthier alternative: tinned tomatoes and rinsed baked beans. While I’ve always been a fan of soups, she’s the first to show me that 🍅 soup could be more than cream and salt).

So, the latest reinvention? Tomato, miso and tahini soup.

There’s a beautiful balance here between sharp, sweet tomatoes, bitter tahini and that buttery, stodginess of miso which is so comforting.

While miso is an exotic ingredient, a tab on the tip of your finger will show you it’s homely and (mostly) easy on the stomach. It’s the same comfort you get from starchy foods like pasta, roasted parsnips and gnocchi.

We found that miso could be used with rice and pretty much any vegetable!

The soup was chosen to stop myself getting ill. September passed in a heady blur after it started with news of a friend’s suicide in Catalonia. Four Saturdays straight I woke up from the working week with flu symptoms, migraines and what felt like a cracked back.

I remember conversations the mornings which followed like I had been drunk, with friends, my partner, my boss. My boyfriend would constantly attempt (in vain) to remind me to keep my posture straight, but my head was heavier each day.

In bed on my back I would feel like my rib cage was buckling to the point that I sometimes wanted to stop breathing for a minute or so; to let my lungs hang low, close to my spine without having to heave them up again.

The soup was a feat of something which seemed strange but then upon completion made total sense. A sense of home and adventure – two things I always took from my now lost friend – plus total comfort, something I needed in a silent flat, contemplating such awful news.

I ate the soup for lunch from a Japanese designed hotpot at my desk, only a couple of days away from flying to a funeral with strangers and with few answers to curb my misery. My body felt a little more like mine though, and my breath passed easily in warmer lungs.

After the funeral that weekend, I drove back to an Airbnb in the Catalonian hills with dried sausage, sweet potatoes and red wine to remember similar meals with my friend, watching the sunset with slices of orange and listening to music while beans bubbled with tomatoes.

Illustration and paper flowers from the memorial service

It’s so hard to imagine how you’ll remember people when they leave, which is why we should share as many meals as we can in life. Cook for yourself and your friends and for those you love, because even behind your tongue there are memories that you can stir and tug at for years to come. I never spoke Spanish and her English was broken, but we both loved pancakes and bananas.

Looking over a Catalonian valley