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Arne Hendriks on a quest for the practical and metaphorical power of miso

22 October 2023

BURO MISO is new research that artist and artistic researcher Arne Hendriks is presenting in collaboration with Rabobank. BURO MISO is Hendrik's research vehicle for exploring the practical and metaphorical power of this wonderful soybean paste.

What if, during the seventeenth century, the Dutch had transported miso on the ships of the VOC (Dutch East India Company) from Japan to Europe? It's a question that preoccupies Hendriks. If that had happened, he suspects the Netherlands' food industry might have looked rather different. This fermented soybean paste is a wonderful ingredient that, according to the artist and artistic researcher, can play a vital role in the impending protein, energy and health-care transitions.

Why didn't the Dutch bring miso to Europe back then?

Who can say? Bias? A blind focus on the goods that merchants thought were more valuable, such as porcelain, silver and silk? Perhaps they found miso's taste too intense. Logs have been discovered which indicate that miso products were indeed dispatched from Japan on Dutch ships. The goods, however, were unloaded in Vietnam because they sold well there. The fact remains that we've denied ourselves a very interesting, tasty and healthy source of protein. Suppose that miso had arrived in the Netherlands, and we had added its wonderful umami flavour to our own rather modest culinary tradition back in the seventeenth century, we might not have had a nitrogen crisis at all. We might not have become so reliant on meat and dairy in our diet. And migrants from Western Europe might not have exported that same meat and dairy preference to the US before its citizens further spread it around the world in what's now known as the 'Great Americans Steak Religion'. I find it interesting to speculate about the consequences of such a missed opportunity. It says something about who we are and how we got here, but above all, it offers us the opportunity to retroactively embrace a different way of eating. Perhaps we can take a step back in time by saying, 'We didn't do it back then, maybe we should do it now.' From the fantasy of what could have been, you look at what currently exists, and you do the math.'

You launched BURO MISO at Springtij. And, during Dutch Design Week, you'll be on Ketelhuisplein with your 'research project', as it were. What is BURO MISO?

From a very practical perspective, it's a kitchen: the last remaining workshop in the household. A place where things are made; in this case, miso. Marika Groen will be holding daily workshops in which she and the audience will explore the practical and poetic sides of miso. For me, the kitchen is also where we work on our relationship with the Earth, because every day we make choices that impact it. My interest in miso arose during a working period at Wageningen University & Research, where I was researching the protein transition. We knew back in the 1970s that eating beans could make a huge positive contribution to all sorts of social and environmental ills, but we've only managed to eat fewer and fewer beans ever since. Because miso is made from beans and is incredibly tasty, I think we should give this special substance the central place in our diet that it might have received had we introduced miso to the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. What's more, we can learn a lot from miso. It's a product that truly requires collaboration, with a fungus in this case. With miso, time is also a very important aspect. You have to have faith that everything will work out because you have to store a jar of miso for quite a long time. What you cooked a year ago, so to speak, can only now be eaten. This different understanding of what food is, what it can be for us and what our current relationship with it is may end up making you more aware. This will allow you to make different choices and, before you know it, you'll long for other products and goods that can exist in balance with the planet.

How can this help with the current issues facing the food industry?

'The analyses about what's currently not going well in the world have all been performed hundreds of times. And, as previously mentioned, they've been around for a long time. But we're still failing to become those new people who live in balance with the world. At least, we're turning into those new people far too slowly. To really act on the knowledge that we have will require different stories and metaphors. Such a jar of miso — the story and the metaphorical power behind it, will hopefully help bring that change to bear. Simply because it makes us look at the essential aspects of life differently. As an artist, I believe it starts at that very fundamental level. The rest will come later.'

BURO MISO also represents a central theme in your work: downsizing or minimalism. Why is it that we, as humans, do not cope very well with downsizing, with having less?

'I actually think we can do this, and that it was even very common in the past. In our current culture, we're no longer capable of properly accommodating that desire for less. Downsizing is no longer stimulated or facilitated. As a consumer, you're encouraged to always want more, so that the economy can continue to grow. You continuously receive positive incentives and compliments when you do something to 100% or even more. Therefore, our natural saturation point has become confused. We live in a kind of make-believe world in which we tell ourselves that we can and should continue to do this indefinitely. I think that attitude is not natural, but rather cultural.'

Previously, you participated in DDW with a 'Hara Hachi Bu' village, a Japanese term which explains that you should never eat until your stomach is 100 per cent full, but until you're 80 per cent full. How is BURO MISO a follow-up to that?

'The first time that I heard the term 'Hara Hachi Bu' was in Okinawa, Japan, when an elderly lady served me a cup of miso soup. It's what they say to each other there at the beginning of a meal, as a kind of quantitative advice. Over the past ten years, that idea has inspired me enormously, hence the Hara Hachi Bu village was born two years ago. At the same time, however, I overlooked the other "treasure" she presented to me: the miso. A bit like those VOC members in the seventeenth century. During my time at Wageningen University & Research, that steaming cup of soup suddenly resurfaced in my memories. That's actually interesting stuff, I thought. It turned out to be the missing piece of the puzzle to add a practical component to the philosophical idea of ​​Hara Hachi Bu. Consuming miso more often as part of a diet based on beans, grains and vegetables can greatly reduce your ecological footprint.'

In BURO MISO you make Dutch miso. Tell us about that.

'Suppose we had come into contact with miso here in the seventeenth century and wanted to make it here? We would, of course, have started using Dutch grains and beans, as well as producing Dutch pottery. The mussel pan would be seasoned with miso, just like the Brussels sprouts and green beans. That thought inspired us. Fortunately, a Wageningen professor, Cor van der Weele, also turned out to own a family farm where field beans are still grown. We've been producing miso from these beans for three years. Kind of a "polder miso." It's very tasty.

For BURO MISO, you've collaborated with Rabobank. What does that collaboration mean to you?

For me, Rabobank represents a certain aspect of humanity and society that's primarily focused on growth. That's how it works at banks. Moreover, Rabobank has a huge impact on the financing of our current food system. No one will have missed the reports in the newspapers in recent years. Since 2018, I've been working within this challenging context on other fundamental ideas regarding growth and, more particularly, downsizing or leading minimalist lifestyles. Precisely where it may be most difficult, I try to start a dialogue. And to explore together how to move towards a different set of ideas about the development of the economy and food system.That's exciting, even frightening, of course. Not only for me, but for everyone who's part of these conversations, which have been held regularly for more than five years, including again this year during DDW. In this way, like so many others in the design & arts field, I try to help change the values ​​with which we're shaping the world. Miso functions as a lens to perceive things from a different perspective.

How is it exciting and difficult?

"Well, Rabobank is a bank. And they tend to be about growth, about more and about how the economy can get bigger. Those are all stories at odds with my own research and my own stories about shrinkage, less and smaller. So there is a huge tension between that environment and my own philosophy. But, I think that also creates a huge dynamic. I think this is precisely where I need to tell this story."

So, you deliberately sought collaboration with a bank?

"Yes, of course it's not an easy context. But precisely by having conversations about shrinkage with a bank, you create space for that idea. Slowly but surely, that idea is also starting to gain traction within the financial world. And certainly also at Rabobank. They are indeed open to my story. At least, I am tolerated there, haha. But that's a start and it means there is room to talk about these kind of things and make changes."

Is it true that your miso is married?

'Definitely, with the homemade miso from a friend of mine from Tokyo: Hidetoshi Kuranari. In Kumamoto in southern Japan, there's a Shinto shrine dedicated to miso. We presented the idea to the priest and, to our great surprise, she agreed. Now, in Shintoism, everything has a soul. A recording of the wedding can be seen in BURO MISO.”

Have we forgotten anything?

“During DDW, I will be giving away a total of 900 jars of speculative miso to people who are committed to the various pressing transitions in society. It is a backdated miso, or a miso that, in our mind, originated in in the 17th century and has survived to this day. Kind of weird but tasty, I'll say. Anyway, I'll be asking these people from time to time over the next few years how things are changing. I will collect responses on the website In this way, I hope to keep my finger on the pulse somewhat and see if we humans also acquire more flavour in the years ahead, just like the miso.