“Why do they serve miso soup with a lid in Japan but not in the US?”
When I saw this question posted online, I had to think and search for an answer. Yes, I did grow up in Japan. Yes, I did eat miso soup for almost every Japanese meal at home. But, no, I was unable to come up with an answer.
Why is that?
I had to ask myself.
When a question is such that it is related to customs, habits, and native languages, I find it difficult to explain. Language, especially speaking, is a good example. I can speak Japanese because it is something I know, not something I had to go to school to learn. Listen, watch others, imitate, adapt and learn.
The lid for miso soup fits this category. I grew up eating it. I grew up seeing it on my dining table. I grew up seeing it with and without a lid at home and restaurants.
I don’t remember no one ever explained to me the reason for using the lid, or reason for not using the lid for that matter. Perhaps I did? Perhaps I asked someone. Nonetheless, it’s something I took for granted. The why never became an issue. Just like any other cultural standards, in my mind, it was because “that’s how it has been done for a long time.”
You may not see a lid for miso soup even in Japan
While most customers may not be used to seeing a miso soup lid in US restaurants, they are likely to encounter the same situation even if they travel to Japan.
In most cases, miso soup is served without a lid at restaurants in Japan.
There are a couple of reasons I can think for this.
For one, the general use for a lid is reserved for a finer cuisine, a refined dish, a special occasion, a special dish and so on. Thus, for an everyday meal at home, a standard meal at a restaurant, there is no need to use a lid for miso soup. For a restaurant to not use a lid is more of a practical reason — the cost to buy lids for all the soup bowls and wash them.
If a home cook or a restaurant decides to place a lid, it does signify the premium value for the miso soup: premium ingredients, limited servings, a special occasion. A restaurant can use a lid to distinguish from the standard soup. A lid is a sign that says, “This miso soup is the premium.”
The “premium” connotation is traced back to Muromachi period (1336–1573) in Japan. Miso was expensive, an ingredient used only by the wealthy, higher-ranked officials and Shoguns.
The wealthy could afford to live in large houses. A large house meant a long distance between the kitchen and a dining area.
To keep the soup from getting cold, the use of the lid was a necessity. A lid also prevented dirt and insects from entering into the soup. It was practical. The wealthy could afford to have a lid for their soup.
Assuming this was the case, the poor and the middle-class people started to see a lid for a soup as a sign of wealth. Using the lid was reserved for a special occasion, special dish for them.
Nowadays, there is less need to worry about our miso soup getting cold before it being served. There are various ways to keep the hot food hot and cold food cold — gas, electric, portable and mobile. Less worries for bugs, dust and ashes falling on our soup in many urban restaurants and homes.
Aesthetic and emotional element
There is a non-practical reason for using a lid for a soup.
The lid adds visual appeal.
Before opening the lid, we are only seeing the outside, but we know there is a delicious soup inside. We don’t know what it looks like and we want to find out what we are about to eat.
This creates anticipation.
We want to eat miso soup because we are hungry. Now, we want to open the lid because we are curious.
When we open the lid, the beautiful layout of the ingredients inside of the soup bowl appears. In Osuimono, we can see all the ingredients in the clear broth sitting at the bottom of the bowl, beautifully laid out.
The steam and aroma are released.
We are visually and aromatically stimulated before our taste.
What is the answer to the question?
When I did online image search for Miso Soup, I did see some pictures of miso soup with a lid. I did read some comments on Quora stating they have seen a miso soup with a lid.
In addition to these findings, based on some historical background and my experience, I say the reason most restaurants (both in the US and Japan) for not using the lid is practical. Should they decide to use one, that would be to keep the soup warm, add more value/price, add aromatic experience, and add the element of visual surprise when lifting the lid.
In writing this article, I did some research to find any historical sightings on this matter, but I was unable to find a useful reference.
As such, most of what I wrote is based on my experience and assumption.
If anyone has feedback, insights, comments, I’d love to hear from you. Please send me your email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you enjoy this story, here is another story you may like.
Subscribe to my weekly summary newsletter to get your free copy of my eBook.