When I say miso, you say soup. When I tell María José Mantilla about it, she brings me back a vinaigrette for grilled vegetables, a meat stew, a plate of polenta, a jam and a porridge for breakfast. Also an ice cream. Miso’s shadow is long, especially for those who, like her, consider it not an ingredient but a “flavor-enhancing tool.” A mastered dish is a feast.
With an Asian restaurant on every corner, the moment you taste the different types of miso or one of Ma’s fermented pastes! Condimentos Vivos de Asia, Mantilla’s brand, aims to get the palate used to the power of fermenting grains and legumes. Nonetheless, this Barcelona-based Colombian’s mouth fills once again with something unfamiliar that makes even the fingertips throb. There is a taste close to the absolute, there are textures, there is color.
It all starts with a hungry mushroom: the koji, or Aspergillus oryzae, which the Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese have been using for three millennia. It feeds on the steamed grain it is inoculated into and in a few days has organized a feast of digestive enzymes that convert complex carbohydrates into simple ones. By the time the playlist is over, the house will be full of sugars, amino acids, and oleic acids. I mean umami. “They’re having a good time!” says Mantilla, who is not only practical but also has patience, an essential ingredient when working with tiny organisms who, like a bunch of teenagers, have devoted themselves to eating, sleeping, and reproducing.
Umami, but from here
The virtue of this graphic designer and chef, who moved from Colombia to Barcelona to study at Mey Hofmann’s hotel management school, is to interpret an ancient traditional method with a local product. He imports the mushroom spores from one of eight labs across Japan licensed to manufacture them. “It’s the only thing that comes from the outside,” he admits. The rest? Rice from Pals, beans from Tolosa, seaweed from Galicia, pumpkin from Girona or Añana salt, among others. “I make Mediterranean umami,” he jokes, but the truth is, the flavors of the Peninsula throb in his glasses.
He uses rice for his kome koji, as well as other grains like barley. In this case, which would be called Mugi Koji, Castilla y León rice beans are added, creating a creamy and caramelized paste that shines on anything that’s passed the grill. Dominate the misos, but the same prepares you for a kombu hishio, “an ancestor of traditional miso with ginger and cayenne pepper” or an amazake, sweet fermented rice cream eaten as a breakfast sweetener in Japan. She recommends taking it with yoghurt and has an even tastier version to which she adds chestnuts from Viladrau (Girona). More season and more country for Ma!.
One of the queens of his pantry is a 98-day fermented version of the Romesco sauce, romeskoji, that would make even the most Tarragonas cry: base of his kome koji, rice from pals, marcona almonds, roasted organic tomatoes and garlic, ñoras , Alava salt and water to sink some calçots that make the wave when they discover their end. Those who dare to organize the party in their own four walls will find the mantilla rice and barley mother ferments in their online shop.
A things with her name
“I have a killer palate,” he says from Barcelona. Her Colombian aunts marrying Japanese men was key to her education. “Having access to authentic Japanese products from a young age changes your perception of flavors. I’ve always been a weird little girl to others. I ate the mustard by the spoonful,” he says. He started using this fermented thing in 2015 for health reasons and started producing his own through books like The Book of Miso by William Shutleff or Cozy Koji by Marika Groen. Afraid to work with mushrooms? “I’m more afraid of what Mercadona is selling or that the industry has managed to get us to see UHT milk as dangerous but healthy old ways. In reality, human nutrition is completely backward.”
Despite the fact that its business is “to produce flavors” already trusted by restaurants like Enjoy, Mantúa, Nublo or Direkte Boquería, it is important for Mantilla to recognize and appreciate the work of its predecessors: “I don’t listen stop being an immigrant and make food for immigrants. I don’t want to acknowledge a process that has been going on for thousands of years. I’m not Japanese and I’m not trying to appear Japanese,” he says. Because of this, it keeps the original vocabulary to denote its products. Not naming her would be like erasing her origin with the stroke of a pen, even if it is accidental. “In Europe there is a tendency to simplify things in order to understand them better, to Europeanize everything. Things must be labeled by the name given to them in the culture to which they belong. It’s a way of respecting and spreading them. Same thing happens when they call me Sudaca. As if we were all the same!”
Don’t let the party die
He promises new products in the coming months: he wants to launch a line of soaps based on rice distillates, he will work with carob beans from La Garrotxa and he has his hands on a gochuyan – a pungent Korean ferment – that he will make with apples from the Pyrenees and ñoras. Quite a journey. “In oriental cuisine, umami is a philosophy. There is umami in Spanish gastronomy, in products such as salted anchovies, Iberian ham, cheese, vinegar… but it is used in small proportions. We have to open ourselves even more to this taste.”
As we train ourselves in this umami thing, María José Mantilla dedicates himself to testing and making sure the mushroom is doing its thing in the right place and under the right conditions. The koji party continues; and the main artist is never allowed to leave the building.
In the Product of the Month section, we tell the story of foods that move us through their quality, taste and the talent of the people who make them. No manufacturer gave us money, jewelry or Mercadona gift certificates to make these items.