The Mysterious World of Japanese Natto
An extraordinary superfood not to pass up on your travels in Japan and the reason why ‘natto’ truly is a once in a lifetime memorable gastronomic experience!
An Honest First Impression of Natto
I awoke one morning to a hive of activity; slowly crouched down on the ‘tatami’ mat and stretched my legs out beneath the ‘kotatsu’ table’s warm and welcoming underbelly. Eventually, I was able to find a comfortable position and sat poised ready to tuck into a traditional homemade Japanese breakfast that had been lovingly prepared by my wife and mother-in-law.
“What’s that?”, I said.
A question we all find ourselves asking on encountering an unusual food. Concurrent questions then started to appear in my mind with no clear obvious answers.
“Is that some sort of crunchy breakfast snack… Oh, I know, it’s a sweet, um, a type of relish?”, I guessed, after watching my wife open the packaging.
“Beans”, I was abruptly told.
“Really! Oh, right”, I replied hesitantly with a touch of curiosity.
I was then told that natto is fundamentally fermented steamed or boiled soybeans. The cooked beans are exposed to a living bacteria commonly known as ‘Bacillus subtilis’ at a temperature of 40 degrees centigrade for up to 24 hours, then they are subsequently aged for around a week in the fridge allowing the living bacteria to do their magic and complete the process.
When we taste food, we are inclined to break the experience down into sensory perceptions, and generally, the first to be queried is the visual element, so that we can weigh up the pros and cons in our mind, and perhaps make a judgment whether we might like it or not. Onsight, natto has a confectionery like characteristic, a toffee or syrup-like quality due to the colour and sticky consistency. This was indeed one of my initial thoughts, though I wasn’t sure whether to expect a sweet or savoury taste to follow, as soybeans were the main ingredient. The expected texture is enhanced through the preparation with the help of chopsticks which induce a stringy, gooey, sticky, spider web effect reminding me of when toffee is left exposed to the sun on a hot day. This is a direct result of the bacteria actively turning the proteins into glutamic acid.
After the initial introduction, it wasn’t long before this curious smell started to waft, and my visual perceptions were questioned. The smell was pungent, like a smelly cheese past its sell-by date, and every twist of the chopsticks seemed to churn the unusual mixture along with my stomach making the prospect of putting even a single bean in my mouth an impossibility. Now, this revolting odour, which was my initial reaction, was enough to convince me that food smelling that bad wasn’t going to taste good or pass my lips. It was enough for me to turn to other foods that were available at the time, and really who could blame me with all the mouth-watering food Japan has to offer? It had certainly proved to be an acquired taste.
On being introduced to natto, you’d be forgiven for making countless predictions about the taste. Reactions when sampling the fermented soybeans evoke memories of watching the notorious durian fruit being consumed for the first time, though on a more subdued scale. Japanese taste buds aren’t desensitized to it either, they also tend to love it or hate it, though if they fall into the latter category, many still eat it due to the renowned health benefits.
I managed to eventually pluck up the courage in my early thirties to try it, a whole 10 years later, perhaps due to having a more worldly view of food, a broader palate and indeed a greater awareness of the Japanese culture. I had tasted things by then with questionable flavours such as ‘Osechi Ryori’, a colourful assortment of foods arranged in a bento box traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day in Japan and I had also developed an affinity for raw fish, which I had previously also turned my nose up at when initially introduced to the prospect of consuming it. My culinary horizons had certainly developed, and changed, so I thought why not try again? The natto odour overtime had dulled through exposure to it, as it had been a significant part of my family’s diet. Now, the description befitting of this superfood’s fragrance was a sort of smoky, nutty, buttery aroma, far from pungent or rancid.
After twisting and turning my chopsticks, I eventually found myself taking the plunge. The taste was far from unpleasant, as the soy sauce and mustard are the predominant flavours, leaving the unique bean texture to simply savour. The smell was now an afterthought. It was absolutely delicious!
A Health-boosting Food
If you’re still not convinced, here’s another reason to give it a try! Natto is a probiotic, a substance which replenishes and stimulates the growth of helpful bacteria in our bodies, especially in the gut. The enzyme Nattokinase found in this healthy and nutritious treat can help to ease bowel problems; the high calcium content strengthens bones and it has natural blood-thinning properties, therefore acts as a preventative against heart attacks, high blood pressure and strokes.
Japanese take health extremely seriously, and many believe that the vitamins found in this tasty bean treat also help to keep their skin youthful and healthy. Vitamin B, B6, B12, E, K, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc and iron are all prevalent in this legume. It is also low in calories and can be an effective way to lose weight. ‘Hikiwari’ (crushed soybeans) natto is fed to children to introduce them to this nutrient-rich food and breast-feeding mothers are told to eat it to promote lactation.
Natto’s Humble Beginnings
The origins of natto date back to the Heian period more than 1,000 years ago. Wrapping food in rice straw was a popular way of carrying food around, and in turn, protected it from the elements. The bacteria ‘Bacillus subtilis’ or ‘natto-kin’ in Japanese is found to inhabit and flourish in it, and natto’s discovery was initially made whilst delivering beans enveloped in a vessel made from it. The conditions had facilitated the fermentation process and this type of straw is still used by some to make it in rural areas even today. The Mito Natto Company is an excellent example of a food manufacturer that still produces the legendary ‘wara’ natto which is made, sold, and gift wrapped using it. However, to more efficiently mass produce natto in modern times, large boiling/steaming vats are used on an industrial scale in squeaky clean factories, though it can also be made domestically in small quantities simply by using any sterile, non-corrosive container.
An anecdote that has been passed down through the generations gives an account of an army in the Heian period boiling soybeans, and on seeing the enemy attack, they quickly wrapped them up. Upon opening the parcel again some days later, the beans had become slimy. The soldiers were so hungry, they had no choice but to eat them, and to their amazement they still enjoyed them.
Opportunities to Sample This Nutrient-rich Food
When visiting Japan, an ideal time to try natto is at breakfast, as it is often served as an accompaniment to rice, ‘shio jake’ (dried, salty salmon), miso soup, pickles, and ‘nori’ (dried seaweed) and in Kanto and Tohoku Prefecture, it is popular to eat it simply on its own with rice.
In my opinion, this is the best time, as during other mealtimes there are copious varieties of food to choose from, and it is a healthy, probiotic start to the day. A traditional Japanese breakfast is also a must-try culinary experience, and the best can be found in many ryokans, on the breakfast buffet at hotels or served in restaurants like Ootoya and Sukiya in the form of a ‘natto teishoku’(a natto set meal).
Natto is also sold at supermarkets and convenience stores throughout Japan and can be purchased for as little as 100 yen for 3 to 4 Styrofoam containers.
Natto is sold like this in the supermarket
Recipe and Topping Ideas to Try
Many recipes use natto. The most simple and popular uses ‘negi’ (spring onions), and raw egg, which can take the edge off the odour and texture if you find this unpleasant to begin with. Another way to combat the pungent aroma, if this bothers you, is to add a dash of sesame oil, which can alleviate it.
Other inventive dishes include natto spaghetti, natto cheese toast, or fried rice with natto. It is often also added to or used as a topping for miso soup, soba, udon, Japanese curry, Okonomiyaki, ｍaki sushi, tofu, and onigiri rice balls.
The texture and taste can be complimented when eaten with any of the following: okra, chives, ‘umeboshi’ (Japanese plums), shiso leaves, dried seaweed, kimchi, ‘daikon’ (Japanese radish), sesame seeds or Japanese pickles.
There are even new products on the market in Japan to entice people to try it, and a few products are as follows: edamame natto, natto gyoza, and natto tofu which has a creamy cheesy texture, so there are many opportunities to incorporate natto into your culinary tour of this magnificent island country.
How do I Prepare it and Eat it?
Inside the Styrofoam packaging lies ‘karashi’ mustard and a sweet soy sauce which is given the name ‘tare’ meaning sauce in Japanese. Remove them and the plastic film. This next step is important to note, as the beans must be stirred before any of the condiments are added. Then mix in the sauce and mustard to taste, together with other ingredients of your choice such as chives and spring onions to name a few.
Eating it can prove tricky if you don’t use chopsticks regularly, and the stringy strands can end up attached to your face and chin. So, take precautions by tying your hair back if it’s long, and make sure you have plenty of serviettes available to wipe your face and hands.
Luxury Natto Varieties to Try
There are many different kinds of natto using different colours and even sizes of soybeans. Usually, yellow soybeans are used, but ‘kuro’ (black) and ‘midori’ (green) beans are common alternatives.
Funa natto is one example made with local yellow soybeans from Ibaraki Prefecture and comes in a unique boat-shaped packaging hence the Japanese name ‘funa’ meaning boat. The boat acts as a bowl to prepare the natto and eat it. Another type of Funa natto is made using buckwheat; served with wasabi and has a distinctive soba taste. Funa natto offers factory visits for free, but reservations are required in advance. Midori natto is a kind of natto made using green soybeans. It has a smoky aroma, a less intense taste, and it comes with a condiment of seaweed. Finally, Kogoira kuro natto is a product that uses black soybeans and daikon radish which gives it a crunchy texture. This is suggested as one to try if you are a natto novice, as it’s easy to eat and the texture isn’t too slimy.
Famous Places for Natto
Tohoku’s Aomori Prefecture is widely considered to be the home of the number one natto consumer and Ibaraki Prefecture’s Mito City is understood to be its birthplace. Though consumption differs throughout Japan as do popular foods, for instance, white rice in the Kansai region is eaten in significantly smaller quantities due to the popularity of ‘udon’ (thick wheat noodles) and ‘okonomiyaki’ (a savoury pancake), so natto, as a result, is purchased less frequently.
There are several attractions to visit in Mito City, Ibaraki prefecture. Tengu Natto operates a factory producing ‘wara’ natto where you can watch them work; it exhibits the history of the fermented bean’s production in the area, admission is free, and their products can be bought in the local shop. Natto can also be purchased in the city’s vibrant Kairaku-en Park or the bustling Yamasa Fish Market. Takano Foods is one of the largest natto producers in the area and it also has a museum and factory that is open to visitors.
If you don’t get a chance to sample it, natto can be found in many Asian supermarkets throughout the world, so there is no reason not to buy this Japanese superfood to make your own mind up. Psychologically, knowing the health benefits can certainly make you want to try it; adopt it as part of your diet and enhance the taste. Now, I eat it regularly, and after experimenting with a variety of recipes, have found flavours that do indeed complement it and heighten its flavour. When travelling to Japan, it should definitely be included in foods to try due to its availability, versatility, and uniqueness. It will be a gastronomic experience you will never forget!
*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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