In its rudest translation from Japanese, miso sounds like something that was left in the back of the refrigerator too long. However, to those who have experienced the "fermented soybean paste" in soups, barbecues, vegetable dishes and everything from sandwich spreads to salad dressings, miso is more akin to cheese or wine.

Miso, which can be incorporated into a variety of oriental and western dishes, comes in a range of tastes and colors and textures as varied as those of the world's cheeses, and, like wine, in reds and whites that suit different dishes.

It is made by mashing together grain (usually rice or barley), soybeans and salt, then injecting the mixture with a fermenting agent of mold spores Aspergillus oryzae and incubating it for up to three years.

As fermentation proceeds, the protein nutrients of the soybean, often difficult to digest, are broken down into easily assimilable forms. The miso becomes a vegetarian's dream of a protein food with a complete complement of the eight essential amino acids and is full of beneficial microorganisms such as lactobacilli, which give yogurt its reputation for increasing the eater's longevity.

The fermentation process of the miso precludes the necessity of refrigeration unless the miso is being kept for more than one year, and once your family has tasted misoshiru, a soup with a miso base, you won't be keeping your miso that long.

Because miso ordinarily comes in sealed one-pound plastic bags, it is easy to measure by simply cutting a corner off the bag and squeezing it like a tube of toothpaste. A snake of miso will drop into your measuring spoon or cup. To keep the miso from drying out, reseal the plastic bag with one of the plastic clips used to reseal chip bags, roll the plastic down and secure it with an elastic band, or pop the entire bag of miso into a Ziploc or other resealable bag.

White miso actually ranges in color from light yellow to beige, is made with rice, and tends to be slightly sweet. Rapid fermentation leads to a lighter taste, and it is excellent in flavoring vegetable and fruit dishes.

Red miso, usually reddish or chestnut brown, contains more barley and soybean, has a longer fermentation period and a heftier taste, and is often saltier. Red miso is most often used in preparing pickles, soups and seafoods. In Japan, the preferred miso in the south is the lighter, sweeter, white variety, while northerners enjoy the saltier, darker miso with added body.

In the United States, miso's most productive use is as a seasoning, particularly for people on low-salt diets. Miso offers a full-textured aromatic flavoring without a full complement of salt. For comparison's sake, one tablespoon of sweet white miso and 1 1/2 teaspoons of red miso contain the equivalent of one-quarter teaspoon of salt. When using miso as a seasoning, the cook is adding protein and reducing salt in favorite dishes. When the miso is cooked properly, i.e. not boiled, which would destroy the microorganisms, the cook is also adding beneficial bacilli that aid in digestion, thus increasing the amount of nutrients the body absorbs from food.

The varieties of miso available in local oriental and health food stores range from the king of miso, Hatcho miso, a dark cocoa-brown miso extra-rich in protein and low in carbohydrates that has been produced continuously in Japan for over 600 years, through Waka-Hatcho miso, a similar type with a shorter fermentation period, to a variety of the white misos. There are misos that are completely soybean-based as well as misos made with rice and with barley. The experimental cook must take courage and discover which misos are amenable to his or her style of cooking.

The following recipes include a basic soup, dip, broiled vegetable and salad dressing. The methods of cooking can be adapted to family favorites, and ingredients can be subsituted or expanded to suit individual tastes: ONE-SERVING MISOSHIRU (1 serving)

The traveler in Japan is sometimes surprised to be greeted with a typical Japanese breakfast of misoshiru or miso soup, a bowl of steaming white rice, a raw egg (not even dipped into hot water!) still in the shell and a few sheets of nori seaweed. What do you do when faced with this tray at 7 a.m.? Drink the misoshiru right out of the bowl, crack the egg and beat a little soy sauce into it with your chopsticks, pour the egg over the rice, and, using your chopsticks dexterously, lay a square of seaweed over the rice-egg mixture. By carefully pushing down on both chopsticks, you can pick up a nicely rounded bit of nori-egg-rice. This breakfast was such a favorite with some noncooking English friends of mine that they bought a rice steamer and had breakfast for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

In fact, misoshiru can be served as a protein-rich pick-me-up at any time of the day, and is often served at breakfast, lunch and dinner . . . without the raw egg and rice. 1 cup of dashi (dashi is a bonito-based stock available in an "instant" preparation, similar to bouillon cubes, in Japanese food stores) 2 tablespoons cabbage, very thinly sliced 1/2 ounce tofu, cut in small squares 1 tablespoon of red miso or 2 tablespoons of white miso Sprig of watercress

Pour stock and sliced vegetables into a saucepan and heat to boiling. In a separate bowl, soften the miso with a little stock and then stir into stock with cooked vegetables. Add the tofu and reheat until piping hot. Do not boil as boiling destroys the yeasts and microorganisms in the miso. Pour into a bowl, stir once or twice so that it does not sink to the bottom of the bowl, and garnish with watercress. MISOSHIRU BY TRADITIONAL METHOD (4 servings)

When making misoshiru the Japanese cook is bound by tradition, but founds her reputation on innovation. One Japanese proverb allows that only the woman who makes fine miso soup is ready to be a bride. Every miso soup is composed of a stock, miso, vegetables and/or meats and a garnish or seasoning. The excellent cook will try to incorporate seasonal vegetables and herbs to create soup in keeping with the season. Thus a summer soup might include thinly sliced scallions with a shrimp or two in a light white miso base garnished with watercress. However, a winter soup would offer a denser look and a heartier smell and taste. One popular winter soup floats Chinese cabbage slices and fried tofu squares in a hearty red miso base sprinkled with red pepper -- a soup to warm the blood as well as the stomach. By following the cooking principles included in this general recipe, the cook can create a variety of soups for the family's delight. 4 cups stock (dashi is traditional, but vegetable, fish, or chicken can also be used) 4 tablespoons of red miso or 8 tablespoons of white miso 1/2 cup thinly sliced or julienned vegetables, depending on season 3 to 4 ounces of prepared protein (such as tofu or tempeh cut into small squares, diced or julienned cooked poultry or cooked small shrimp) Garnish as desired (garnishes include different greens like watercress, parsley and trefoil; spices like red pepper, mustard, or gingerroot; and other seasonings like grated lemon zest, ground roasted sesame seeds, a bit of orange peel and, for the American palate, fresh grated parmesan cheese).

Warm the stock. Cream the miso with a few tablespoons of the stock in a small cup. With a wire whisk incorporate the miso into the soup stock and bring to a simmer. Do not boil. Add the vegetables and other solid ingredients except garnish and simmer lightly until heated through. Remove from the fire and ladle into bowls, distributing the solid ingredients in all servings. Garnish and serve. Traditionally, misoshiru is served in a covered lacquered bowl so that all ingredients are steaming hot when they reach the table. SESAME-MISO DIP

This dip, invented by Camille Cusumano, combines the traditional flavors of miso, sesame and ginger with a little honey and vinegar to suit the American taste. Served with a platter of raw vegetables and squares of fresh, drained tofu, it provides a little snap and zing to a cocktail party. And it's as easy as turning on your blender! 3 tablespoons miso 2 tablespoons vinegar 2 teaspoons honey 2 tablespoons sesame oil 1 tablespoon mashed tofu 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger Pepper to taste

Measure all ingredients into blender jar and blend until smooth. Additional black pepper may be ground on top as garnish.From "Tofu, Tempeh, and Other Soy Delights" by Camille Cusumano, Rodale Press, 1984. EIKO'S NASU DENGAKU OR GRILLED EGGPLANT (4 servings as vegetable dish)

Nasu dengaku, the first Japanese dish ever taught me by a close friend in Tokyo, has been a hit at barbecues in America. The meaty texture of the eggplant combined with the softness of the miso and the crunchiness of the sesame seeds is a winning textural combination while the mingling of salt and sweet and nuttiness tantalizes the tongue, leading to "just one more bite." 4 small Italian-style eggplants, cut lengthwise into 4 pieces Sesame oil (if the flavor of sesame oil is too strong for you, substitute safflower or corn oil) 1 cup white miso 1/2 cup mirin (sweet Japanese wine) 1/4 cup sesame seeds

Soak the cut eggplants in lightly salted water for 5 to 10 minutes. Drain and pat dry. Brush with oil and broil or grill until lightly browned; then turn. Combine white miso and mirin until you have a spreadable mixture. When the eggplant is browned on both sides, spread the first side with the miso mixture and broil until it is lightly speckled; turn, coat the second side and broil until lightly speckled. Meanwhile, brown the sesame seeds in a heavy iron skillet using no oil and shaking lightly until white seeds turn golden brown. Sprinkle on eggplant and serve.

Parboiled sweet potatoes can be substituted for the eggplant for a winter treat. CUCUMBER SALAD WITH MISO DRESSING (Serves 2 as a side dish)

Here is an unusual and different way to dress up cucumbers. Serve them on toothpicks as an hors d'oeuvre or as a non-lettuce salad. 2 tablespoons red miso 2 tablespoons vinegar 1 1/2 teaspoons honey 2 tablespoons sesame seeds 2 cucumbers, sliced very thinly

Combine miso, vinegar and honey until smooth. Dry-roast the sesame seeds in an iron skillet over a high flame, shaking gently until the sesame seeds brown. Grind briefly in a mortar to release the aroma and taste, or chop quickly. Add to the miso mixture. Toss the cucumbers lightly in the dressing, and serve immediately. From "The Book of Miso, Food for Mankind," by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi Ballantine, 1976.