The Japanese Delicacy (V): Natto

The Japanese Delicacy (V): Natto

Natto is a Japanese traditional fermented food that is known as a superfood because of its high nutrient density. Similar to Surstromming, a food famous in Sweden, and blue cheese, natto is a food with a tangy smell and strong flavor. Some people (even some Japanese) can’t stand that taste. Even if one can appreciate the taste of natto, the sticky and slimy texture may also discourage many people. However, to natto lovers, it is a food with a pleasant aroma and creamy texture that enriches the taste of other foods.

What is Natto?


Natto is a food made of boiled soybeans fermented with the Bacillus subtilis. They are stirred to produce fine threads, which endow natto with a sticky and smooth texture. In Japan, natto is usually topped with soy sauce, wasabi, and other seasonings and served with rice. It is easily recognized by its distinctive and pungent smell, which is often described as ammonia or nutty. Because of its health benefits, some people choose to consume it even though they are disgusted by the taste.

Soybean is rich in protein, vitamins, zinc, and cellulose. Compared with unfermented soybeans, natto contains fewer anti-nutrients and more beneficial phytochemicals and enzymes because the fermentation process promotes the growth of probiotics. Current research says that natto is good for one's bones, heart, immune system, brain, and colon. There are also reports proving that natto has a positive effect on cancer treatment and weight loss.

History of Natto


There is no definite theory about the origin of natto. The first theory is that natto was first introduced to Japan from China during the Nara period (710-784) and became popular with nobles and samurai during the Kamakura period (1192-1333). During the Edo period (1603-1867), natto became a staple of the Japanese diet, and every household learned to make natto. There is a variation of the theory. There is another kind of fermented soybeans in China. Chinese made it with both black beans and soybeans while the Japanese used only soybeans. Natto was believed to be an accidental byproduct in the production of these fermented soybeans.

The second theory is that the troop of samurai Minamoto no Yoshiie was suddenly attacked while cooking soybeans. They hurriedly wrapped the beans in straw and found that the beans had fermented after opening them a few days later. The soldiers ate them anyway and liked the taste. Therefore, they presented the fermented beans to their general. Everyone seemed to like it so much that they began to produce it intentionally. There is also a variation of this story, in which the protagonist changes from Yoshiie to Prince Shotoku.

Traditionally, natto was made by wrapping boiled soybeans in straw, which naturally contains Bacillus subtilis. Researchers in the Taisho era (1912-1926) discovered a way to produce Bacillus subtilis without straw, thereby simplifying and modernizing the production of natto. Today, straw has been completely replaced by little boxes of Bacillus subtilis, which can be added directly to boiled soybeans.

How to Enjoy Natto


Today, natto is available at convenience stores and supermarkets throughout Japan. All you need to do is to stir it before eating. There is even a saying in Japan that stirring natto 100 times will give you good luck. Natto endows rich flavors to food, so natto is often served with other foods. Some common ones are:

  1. Natto gohan: It is one of the common ways of eating natto. Natto is served over a bowl of rice after mixing with seasonings. It is a good choice for either breakfast or a quick meal.
  2. Natto soup: Adding natto to miso soup will mellow the flavor and texture.
  3. Natto maki: A rice roll made of seaweed topped with vinegared rice, seaweed, and natto. It can be found at convenience stores and casual sushi stores.
  4. Natto noodles: Some Japanese people like to put natto on their noodles. There is no limit to the range of noodles, from Japanese ramen to Italian noodles.

As natto has become more and more popular, the ways to eat natto have become more diverse, such as natto pizza and natto ice cream. It is important to note that natto is not just one type of natto. There are three types of traditional natto: 1. Amanatto (sweet natto by cooking the soybeans with sugar), 2. Itohiki natto (Japanese people often eat it with rice), and 3. Tera natto (It is blended with saltiness and umami). New types of natto replace the traditional pungent smell flavor with a coffee aroma, making them more palatable.

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