As far as Hisashi Takimoto is concerned, the secret is in the soup.
"If you are sick, you should eat miso soup," he says. "If you smoke or drink too much, you should eat miso soup. If you are having female problems, you should eat miso soup. Really, there is no time you should not be eating miso soup."
Takimoto can be forgiven for being a bit obsessed with miso soup. Although he's best-known as Taki, owner of Taki's (341 East Colfax Avenue), a favorite haunt of Japanese rice-bowl fans as well as down-and-out folks in need of any cheap meal, he's also spent the past four years perfecting a recipe for miso soup. An all-natural, pre-packaged, flavored soup with no preservatives and no MSG, Taki's Ginger Miso is a just-add-hot-water concoction that could revolutionize miso soup -- not just in this country, but in Takimoto's native Japan.
"Japanese people have always eaten their miso soup very plain, with nothing added to it," explains Takimoto, who moved to this country in 1975. "But they are also very concerned about being healthy. The miso that is available over there is full of preservatives and MSG, and it doesn't have any of the ginger and garlic that's in my miso. My goal was to come up with a product that would be very healthy, very pure, but would still taste good and have a long shelf life. It took me a little while, though."
Taki's (then known as Golden Bowl and located across the street from its current location) served its first bowl of ginger miso soup in 1990. To cure ailing employee Joe De Witt, co-worker Homare Ikeda -- who went on to become one of Denver's better-known artists -- whipped up a special batch of spicy miso soup full of ginger and garlic. "I felt better right away," remembers De Witt. "It had such a restorative quality, and I'm telling you, it helped me get over my cold faster and easier. There was just no question about it."
Denver diners embraced the ginger miso soup, and Taki's has billed it as "the flu shot in a bowl" ever since. But it wasn't until the mid-'90s, when the national media began reporting on medical studies that touted the healthful attributes of soybeans, that Takimoto began thinking about how he could offer the soup outside of the restaurant. "That's when I started working day and night on this," he says. "There were so many obstacles -- like how to have the balance of flavorings just right so that the soup paste would not go bad, and how to do it vegetarian. It was trial and error to come up with something that would taste good, ship and keep well, and appeal to many people."
Miso is a protein-rich paste made from boiled soybeans that have been puréed with wheat, barley (for red miso) or rice (for white miso), then injected with a yeast mold and fermented for anywhere from three to thirty months. Taki's Ginger Miso is a mix of red and white misos, with a green Hawaiian ginger added for its depth of flavor and relatively non-stringy texture.
Taki's employees say they've taste-tested enough miso soup to build up an immunity to anything. "It's a good thing I like it," says Kazuko Weidner, who, along with De Witt and Ikeda, is part of the team responsible for making the Ginger Miso a reality. "But I haven't been sick for a long time."
Recent studies indicate that soybeans have many healing qualities, including lowering blood cholesterol, preventing gallstones, regulating blood sugar, reducing cancer risk, relieving symptoms of menopause and enhancing the ability to conceive. "More than a hundred million Japanese people can't be wrong," laughs Takimoto.
As longtime Taki's customers know, Takimoto stays on top of soybean research. His restaurant features many of the items that GTB Group of Japan Inc., his wholesale food-distribution company, now offers wholesale, including fresh soybeans (edamame), panko breadcrumbs, shiitake mushrooms, pickled ginger, wasabi, nori and other dried seaweed. None of GTB's products contain MSG or preservatives.
Denver's Asian markets, grocery stores and upscale food stores, such as Wild Oats, have been eager to carry Taki's edamame and Ginger Miso, which retails for between $3.50 and $4.49 for eight ounces. "Because soybeans are such a big deal right now, we're really finding that we're filling a niche," De Witt says. "In fact, Colorado is number three in edamame sales in the country, and we're getting calls from all over the country to ship the pods out. And then they find out about the soup, and that's the next thing they want."
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GTB currently is working out of a cramped space in the Denargo Market area, but Takimoto hopes to move into something a little more comfortable soon. "I'd like to be able to process as many soybean products as possible," he says. "The need for soybeans has really only just begun."
And Colorado farmers are doing their best to fill that need. "The strains of soybeans that we've been trying here haven't gone well," admits Jim Brendan, a farmer in Pueblo who's worked with the University of Colorado on soybean cultivation. "They came out tiny and chewy. But we've since discovered strains that are more tolerant of the drier conditions here, and I think we may be on to something." Next year, Brendan plans to turn over several hundred acres of his 1,200-acre farm to soybeans.
A Japanese TV company came to Colorado last year to make a documentary about the popularity of soybean products here -- and it seems the state may be further on the soybean cutting edge than even Takimoto imagines. Last month, a farm in Platteville reaped its first harvest of edamame-quality soybeans, a feat previously thought to be, if not impossible, then certainly more trouble than it was worth. Platteville-grown edamame will be available for about another week; they're being carried at four of the Wild Oats stores (900 East 11th Avenue in Denver, 870 South Colorado Boulevard in Glendale, 5910 South University Boulevard in Littleton and 14357 West Colfax Avenue in Golden). These soybeans have a buttery quality you don't find in imported pods, and they are a thousand times softer-textured; to prepare them, pluck the edamame off the vine, drop them in boiling salted water for ten minutes, and salt at will. Like Takimoto's soup, this is good food.
"The only thing better than healthy miso soup would be healthy miso soup made from products grown in Colorado," Takimoto points out. "That would make everybody feel good -- in more ways than one."