Home Uncategorized Umamiso Delivers a Taste of Japan to Montpelier 

Umamiso Delivers a Taste of Japan to Montpelier 

Yoko Tarrant (holding a steamer) with koji in foreground. Photo by Jess Turner.
When Yoko Tarrant moved to Montpelier from Kyoto, Japan, in 2009, she quickly discovered a lack of options when it came to miso, a fermented bean paste foundational to Japanese cooking. After realizing that not even a fraction of the varieties of miso to which she was accustomed was available in Vermont, she decided to make her own. 

After 14 years of practice, she’s turned her project into a business, not just an act of tenacity and tradition, but the ultimate exercise in patience.

Umamiso, the company that Tarrant started out of her Montpelier home in 2023, produces two varieties of miso, one made from soybeans and one made of chickpeas. The process of making it is laborious, and the fermentation period is long — seven months thanks to Vermont’s cool environment. The batch currently fermenting in Tarrant’s basement won’t be ready until the end of the summer.

 From her kitchen, Tarrant explains that it all begins with rice, specifically koji, a cultured product made from short-grain rice and a powdered enzyme that kickstarts the fermentation process. She displays a small, cloth bag of powdered koji starter that she orders from Kyoto, pointing out how it smells slightly of yeast, like chestnuts, and like something “alive.”

“It’s really a living thing,” she says, referencing the long history of koji cultures in Japan. “Some of them are hundreds of years old.”

After Tarrant cooks the rice and adds the starter, she’s required to keep the koji at a specific temperature for three days, mixing the concoction every six to eight hours. To her, the process is similar to having a young child, as she finds herself waking in the middle of the night to monitor the rice, ensuring it maintains the proper temperature. When the rice is ready, she boils the beans, grinds them in the food processor, mixes them with sea salt and the finished koji, and transfers the paste into airtight fermentation containers.

And then she waits.

Throughout the next several months, Tarrant will stir the mixture to ensure uniform fermentation, a process called “Tenchi-gaeshi,” meaning “to flip heaven and ground,” the act of bringing what’s on the bottom to the top.

The finished result is a smooth, fermented paste that delivers umami, a savoriness often associated with the taste of something meaty or earthy. It adds a depth of flavor outside of the four basic tastes of salty, sweet, bitter, and sour, and its usage extends far beyond broths and soups. Dishes featuring miso range from dressings and glazes to sauteed vegetables, noodles, even baked goods, as evidenced by the miso chocolate chip cookies cooling on Tarrant’s countertop. 

She points out that miso isn’t only a versatile ingredient, but also a healthy one, delivering digestive benefits in the form of probiotics.

“It’s great for gut health, and soybeans are a good protein. They’re called ‘meat of the field’ in Japan,” she says. “And miso has such a long life. It lasts in the fridge for at least a year.”

She considers miso a comfort food, a way to consume something nourishing that’s also soothing, and for her, a part of the comfort in making it herself is the connection to her Japanese heritage. Over the years, she’s managed to return to Kyoto several times with her husband and two daughters, even visiting a commercial miso operation and taking a koji-making class in 2022, but she misses Japan.

“My parents and my aunts and uncles all live in and around Kyoto,” she explains. “Making miso is comforting because it reminds me of where my roots are.”

With Umamiso, Tarrant hopes to deepen her roots here in Vermont, as she looks to the future and plans to grow the company, eventually expanding to the point of needing a larger, commercial space and gaining placement in stores. Currently, visitors of the Capital City Winter Farmers Market can find her selling both varieties of her miso, along with instant soup balls — small, truffle-like spheres of miso and locally sourced vegetables that one can simply place in a bowl with boiling water. At the last market, organic pea-shoots from 1,000 Stone Farm in Brookfield were the featured ingredient.

This marriage of Japanese and local components means a lot to Tarrant, because it allows her to display the union between both of her homes.

“I’m from Kyoto and now I live in Vermont,” she says. “I want to introduce this food to more people here. And I want to show people where I’m from, through traditional miso.”

Yoko’s Easy Miso Dressing

3 tablespoons chickpea miso

2 tablespoons sesame oil

1 tablespoon white vinegar

1 tablespoon Vermont maple syrup

½ tablespoon soy sauce

½ lime, juiced (feel free to replace with lemon or a small orange)

½ teaspoon grated ginger (optional)

Whisk or shake all ingredients. Delicious on salads or steamed vegetables.