Butterbeans, grits, purple hull peas—the chef behind Underbelly is going beyond soybeans to dream up endless varieties of Texas-style miso.
“All of this started because I don’t like to tell farmers no,” says Chris Shepherd.
A farmer’s excess of green plums turned into shrubs (now famously studied by Rice University chemistry students). A recent bounty of black-eyed peas is currently hidden away in barrels, slowly fermenting into soy sauce. And today, the chef and owner of Underbelly in Houston, Texas, and 2013 Best New Chef winner is talking about his latest quest to make the most of what farmers bring him: miso.
After stocking up on koji and a pep talk with Sean Brock, he made his first miso three years ago by throwing some salt and the fungus over cooked butterbeans and stuffing it away for about a year. The result? “It was delicious,” Shepherd says. Texas's overlooked crops, he realized, were a world of miso waiting to ferment.
“Around here, it’s a lot of purple hull peas, crowder peas and butterbeans,” Shepherd explains. “Once you get the method down, you can do pecans, walnuts, bananas, figs, grits or whatever you’re running a lot into. You can miso out.”
Grits miso has become a building block of Underbelly's menu, showing up in salads and dolloped over deviled eggs. However, cooking this way has its drawbacks. Shephered was losing a lot of product in the crapshoot of experimentation, which is why he’s called upon Rice University again to study his miso-making methods when school resumes this fall.
“I never took a chemistry class,” he says. “Now I’m trying to understand what they’re telling me. They get really technical, and I’m like, ‘Look. Slow down.’”
Together, Shepherd and the students hope to find a way to consistently and safely make miso. Especially after a near scare during this past summer’s shrubs test.
“They told me what they found, saying ‘When you put the pears in the sugar, it had botulism,’” Shepherd recounts. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is the worst thing I ever heard.’" (The botulism ended up being cooked off during the distillation process. “Why couldn’t they have told me that first?” he asks.)
Shepherd’s already envisioning miso made from peanuts and corn. The miso mission never ends.