Answering Questions: Aged white miso, plus Japanese for beginners

I get asked a lot of questions by email, Twitter and on Facebook (as well as on Quora, although I am taking an extended break from that at the moment). Sometimes the answers may be of interest to a broader audience, like two I received recently. I've taken out any personal details and so on in the questions.

Question: Is it possible to buy a long-aged white miso?

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The person asking this question was interested in miso that had been aged for an extended period, since she had read that aged miso is healthier.

The answer to this is: not really. A long-aged miso - say something that is 2 years old or more - is almost always dark in color due to the Maillard reaction. It also has more salt than light colored misos to allow it continue to age and acquire character without going bad. The increased amount of salt may lessen the overall healthiness of miso, despite it possibly having more beneficial flora due to the prolonged period of fermentation.

If you're incorporating miso into your diet for health reasons, you may want to either explore using miso in more ways, or look in to adding more fermented foods to your diet. (I'll be talking more about fermented foods in a little while.)

See also: Miso Primer.

Question: What is a good book or other learning material for someone just starting to learn Japanese?

Assuming that taking Japanese lessons is not an option, one textbook that I have heard good things about is called __GENKI: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese__. It's not cheap, but comes with a CD-ROM which is probably essential for self-learning. There is also workbook to go with it.

Beyond that though, since I did not learn Japanese as a second language and I'm not a teacher, I don't know what other options are out there really. So, I'm opening this up to everyone - if you have a Japanese language learning for beginners course, book, website or anything else you recommend, please let us know in the comments!

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