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Stinky but Good!? Fermented Japanese Foods to Try

Fermented foods in Japan, of which natto is the most famous, are known for their distinctive odors. However, they also have deep and rich flavors that can only be achieved through fermentation. So this time, we introduce fermented foods you'll definitely want to try if you are visiting Japan.

What are Fermented Foods?

There are numerous fermented foods around the world, such as cheese, yogurt, wine and beer. Japan is one of the world's leading producers of fermented foods, with items made using koji mold, such as soy sauce and miso, playing a key role in the development of Japan's fermented foods culture. Fermentation is the process by which the enzymes of microbes attached to food break down the starch and protein in the food and change them into amino acids and sugar. Fermentation can create smooth and deep flavors and increase nutritional content and umami flavors.

1. Natto

Natto is a fermented product made with soybeans. Natto bacteria are added to steamed soybeans and kept warm to ferment for 24 hours, resulting in fermented soybeans with a slimy texture. Natto is a common food in Japan that some people eat every day. It is known for its high nutritional content, with nattokinase, an enzyme that is created in the fermentation process, attracting a lot of attention. It is said that nattokinase can work as a blood thinner and can even help to dissolve blood clots. Natto bacteria also increase lactic-acid bacilli​ in the body and help to contain harmful bacteria. They help to improve gut health. Natto is prepared by mixing it with chopsticks to bring out the sliminess and adding soy sauce and condiments such as mustard. It is usually eaten with rice.

2. Kusaya

Kusaya is a type of dried fish that has been handed down in the Izu Islands in the Pacific Ocean for 400 years. Fish such as flying fish and amberstripe scad are de-gutted, marinated in fermented saltwater called kusaya liquid and dried. Kusaya liquid is a liquid that started as simple saltwater, but has fermented with the proteins of the fish from years of use. When the fish is put in the liquid, the proteins and fats dissolve to create umami. It is known as a Japanese fermented food with a particularly strong odor. Its unique odor that is almost stinging is enhanced when grilled, but the concentrated umami and salt flavors create a taste that is addictive to those who try it. It is often enjoyed together with sake.

3. Funazushi (Narezushi)

Funazushi is a regional food from Shiga Prefecture. It is a type of narezushi made with crucian carp from Lake Biwa. Narezushi is made by lactic fermentation of fish with salt and rice. In the case of funazushi, the crucian carp is marinated in salt then layered with rice and further marinated so that it ferments naturally. This dish also has a very strong flavor, so even in Japan, some people love it and some won't go near it. However, its flavors with acidity and umami go perfectly with Japanese sake. Its flavors are a little similar to cheese, so it also goes well with Western drinks such as red wine. It is enjoyed thinly sliced or as ochazuke (placed on top of hot rice with hot tea poured over it.) You can either keep the rice on the fish or scrape it off to eat it.

4. Imojochu

This is a type of shochu (a distilled liquor) made with sweet potato produced primarily in Kagoshima Prefecture and southern Miyazaki Prefecture. It is characterized by the sweet flavor of sweet potato and a smooth texture. It is made by making the yeast starter by combining koji (made by adding koji bacteria to steamed rice and breeding it) that creates a variety of enzymes, water and yeast and adding sweet potatoes and water to ferment. In 1 - 3 weeks, "moromi" with alcohol and the rich aroma of the potatoes is created. The moromi is distilled to make the refined shochu, which is then stored and aged to bring out the smoothness. To finish, different refined shochu are mixed and water added to adjust the flavors. Imojochu can be enjoyed straight or with water, but the best way to savor its rich aromas is by mixing it with hot water.

Fermented foods have wonderfully deep and rich flavors. Be sure to give them a try.

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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