Photo/IllutrationClose-up of Miso products on a store shelf in Los Angeles, California, in 2017. (Provided by Hikari Miso Co.)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

It's been a great year for miso, as the traditional flavoring continues its quest to win over palettes overseas.

Exports of the fermented product hit a record for the seventh year in a row, reflecting the growing number of Japanese restaurants opening up abroad.

A recent boom in canned mackerel in Japan also helped whip up sales of miso, which has been gaining recognition for its health benefits as a probiotic.

Miso exports totaled 17,000 tons in 2018, 1.7 times the 9,882 tons of a decade earlier. Exports to the United States, the largest destination for miso, increased by a little under 30 percent, while those to China increased about six-fold and to Thailand roughly five-fold.

As of the end of October, 15,024 tons of miso had been shipped overseas in 2019.

The bulk of miso exports pass through Nagoya Port as it is close to Nagano Prefecture, the nation’s primary miso production area, and Aichi Prefecture, which is famed for its “mame miso” and is the No. 2 miso producer.

UNESCO's recognition of the traditional dietary culture of "washoku" as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013 created a surge of interest in Japanese food and growing consumption of miso outside Japan.

A survey by the farm ministry found that 156,000 or so Japanese restaurants operated overseas in 2019, up by 40,000 from the previous survey in 2017. Miso is also enjoying brisk sales at supermarkets and other outlets.

Hikari Miso Co., the nation's third-largest miso producer based in Shimosuwa, Nagano Prefecture, has an operational base in Los Angeles. The company has obtained Kosher certification, a seal of approval for food ingredients and cooking procedures in line with Judaism. It also provides halal-certified products conforming to Islamic precepts. Sales in its overseas business as of September increased by more than 10 percent year-on-year.

The company said its products are used for dressings and sauces, and also chosen by vegans in Europe and the United States. Hikari Miso aims at bolstering its overseas sales to 30 percent in the late 2020s from the current 10 percent.

CANNED MACKEREL BOOM

The deep-rooted popularity in the domestic market of canned mackerel, which is known for its health benefits, also pushed up miso exports.

According to fishery company Maruha Nichiro Corp., the canned mackerel market grew by 40 percent year-on-year in 2017 and by 70 percent year-on-year in 2018. The market size is expected to remain almost the same in 2019.

While many canned products contain water-boiled mackerel, miso-flavored varieties are also popular. According to Nagoya Customs, which oversees Nagoya Port, miso is exported to Thailand to process mackerel before the canned products are brought back to Japan.

“In some cases, fermented soybean pastes other than miso are used for ‘miso flavors’ outside Japan,” said an official of the Japan Federation of Miso Manufacturers Cooperatives. “Pastes fermented using Japanese ‘koji’ mold are the only ones that can be called miso. We are making efforts to replace ‘what appears to be miso’ with miso, and we expect exports to continue to increase.”