A Japanese Delicacy, Natto

Every country has delicacies that its population proudly consumes. In Australia, for example, there’s vegemite. Korea has kimchi, the Philippines has “bagoong” or “balut”. You usually can’t find anything like it anywhere else and is proudly hailed by its country of origin as a part of their culture. These delicacies usually have an acquired taste and are either instantly loved, hated, or are slowly developed to be liked by first-time tasters. It really depends on the person. In Japan, one of those popular delicacies is the sticky, slimy, scrumptious natto.

The Main Ingredient of Natto: Soybeans

There are only two ingredients to make natto: soybeans, and natto-kin, the bacteria used to ferment it. Fermenting entails the restructuring of the composition of a carbohydrate, turning it into an acid, or alcohol. The soybeans used to make natto are smaller than some other soybeans in nature. This helps assure that the fermentation process reaches all the way inside the bean. The bacteria then develop and change the composition of the soybean, giving that extra kick to the taste of natto. This feisty bacterium has its own name; in fact, it’s called “Bacillus subtilis var. Natto.”

History of the Traditional Japanese food, Natto

Natto originates from Japan and is considered an ancient dish. Natto was referred to as early as 1086 AD, when the army led by Minamoto no Yoshiie, a samurai who was commander-in-chief, were ambushed by their enemies. His army just so happened to be cooking soybeans to feed to their horses. Because they were caught off-guard by the ambush, they quickly packed up and dumped the beans in their straw bags. Days after the ambush, they opened the straw bags and discovered the beans were still edible – and tasted good too. The soldiers notified Yoshie about this, and thus the procedure on how to make natto was discovered.

Though natto-kin is available in convenient packs in supermarkets now, natto was originally made by keeping the soybeans packed in rice straw. Because rice straw inherently had B. subtilis, it would latch onto the beans and change its composition. In the early 20th century during the Taisho period, Japanese researchers found out how to independently maintain and sell the bacteria responsible for fermentation, called “starter culture”. Thus, anyone who wanted to make natto didn’t have to pack it in straw containers, making it more convenient for anyone and everyone to create the dish.

Although natto is known to be part of a Japanese diet in general, not all areas of Japan love the dish equally. It is much more popular and enjoyed by the eastern region of Japan (particularly Kanto), whose inhabitants incorporate it in their dishes.

How Natto is Made

Making natto can be a bit of a lengthy and tedious process, and must be followed by the book. Because the beans are cooked and carefully fermented, it takes a lot of attention and precision to make the perfect batch. It may be a lot easier to buy natto in the supermarket or from a vendor, but for those who want to try cooking it, it’s still manageable if you follow proper instructions and have the right ingredients.

First, prepareing the soybeans. Once the beans are picked, they are washed. Washing the beans should be a thorough process; rinsing them more than once and individually (very lightly) kneading them to get rid of excess dirt is vital. Next, they are left for a minimum of 12 to a maximum of 20 hours in a substantial amount of filtered water, letting the beans absorb the liquid, thus bloating the beans. The beans then endure a lengthy steaming process after this. It usually takes around 6 hours to fully cook them, but to shorten this period to 45 minutes, pressure cookers can be used.

After the beans are steamed, they are mixed with natto-kin, which is made of a bacterium called Bacillus subtilis so that the fermentation process is kickstarted. When doing this, it’s perfectly fine that the natto-kin is mixed while it is still piping hot. In fact, this is encouraged. Mix the beans and natto-kin well, keeping the mixture loose. Take care not to mush the beans due to their soft state from steaming, and keep your work area and containers clean to avoid cross-contamination with other unwanted bacteria.

Once the natto-kin is added, fermentation process begins. To encourage proper fermentation, it is essential your natto beans are kept in an environment that is warm, humid, and dim. Initially, it needs to sit in a space that is consistently at least 40 degrees Celsius in temperature, for 24 hours. There are “natto-makers” that are available commercially, but if you don’t have one, you may store it in any container that keeps heat well and add hot water in case it gets too cool.

After that 24-hour period, cool your natto in the refrigerator. This aging process gives it more flavor and seals in its musk, as well as its well-known stickiness. You can age it in its cool environment for up to seven days.

What Does Natto Taste Like?

There are many factors that come into use to determine certain food taste besides the tongue test, such as texture and smell. It may first come off as having a scent like that of pungent, old cheese. Sometimes it’s even compared to garbage. As for texture, it’s gooey, slimy, slippery, and contradictorily sticky. It’s famous for its stringiness when pulled apart. The taste of Natto is not as overwhelming as its smell; it is savory, with a hint of smokiness and saltiness.

A survey in Japan was conducted in 2009, determining the percentage of which the Japanese population is agreeable to the taste of natto compared to those who aren’t. Results turned up to reveal that 70.2% of those who answered like the taste. Out of those who said they were not agreeable, half of them still eat natto anyway for its benefits.

What Are the Benefits Of Eating Natto?

Eating natto makes your body more helthier. Besides being packed rich with vitamins, it also makes a potent and wonderful probiotic. A probiotic is a microorganism or “good bacteria” that is incredibly beneficial for your body, particularly your digestive system. Aside from that, the beans have a lot of fiber, which is great for the digestive system. Natto contains linoleic acid which is anti-cancer, and lecithin, which prevents a host of diseases such as gallbladder disease, dementia, and skin disease just to name a few.

Vitamin K1 and K2 are found in natto, and do several great things for your system, particularly for the elderly. Aside from increasing one’s longevity and vitality, it helps unclog and elasticize your arteries and thin blood, thus lowering your chance of having a blood clot. It also aids your liver, and can even help relieve cramps due to menstruation.

Natto also has a good amount of vitamin B, specifically riboflavin and thiamin. These B-vitamins are responsible for proper brain and hormone, and nervous system functions. Also, because of the presence of Polyglutamine acid in natto, it also supports strengthening and maintaining bone density by 80%, as compared to not eating natto at all. The fact that natto also has calcium and magnesium makes it work well with other nutrients to strengthen bones.

Recipe Suggestions for Natto

Natto is considered a breakfast food in Japan, though there are an array of different ways you can enjoy it. It is most commonly consumed by adding soy sauce for more flavor and then using it as a rice topping. Some people like to add extra ingredients to give variety to its taste such as Japanese mustard, bonito flakes, powdered pepper, and/or diced green onions.

You can get creative with this natto recipe by mixing it with whatever leftovers you have in your refrigerator or from last night’s meal, (eggs, mustard, cold rice) mix it all together and fry it. Natto fried rice is a great and quick meal for anyone who wants to get rid of the extra condiments in their refrigerator.

A dish that helps ease in first-time natto eaters should have other strong flavors to distract them from what some consider to be an overwhelming taste. That strong flavor that complements natto perfectly is pork. Fry up some ground pork in sesame oil, season with your favorite spices such as ginger, garlic, or onions and add chopped tofu and natto for a generally palatable dish.

Now if fried rice isn’t your thing, you can add your natto to a scrambled egg, and make an omelet out of it. To make this, fry the natto first, add a splash of soy sauce, and follow up with the already beaten egg. Note that its distinctive fermented smell may be a little emphasized when you cook your natto.

Want Instant Natto? Buy its Powder Form

While it may be easy to find natto in stores in Japan, this isn’t always the same for other countries. If you plan to travel soon and want to keep your natto mobile, you can purchase natto in powder form in online stores. Natto powder is made from crushed, dehydrated fermented soybeans. It offers the same nutritional benefits as fresh natto does, and you can add it as a topping to your food such as soup, or even in your drinks like milk or yogurt smoothies.

Take note that natto in powder form may not have the same strong taste it has when it's freshly made, rather it has a nutty flavor. It’s also different from the starter culture that is used to ferment the soybeans and create natto. Powdered natto has worked wonders for many of its consumers, who swear by its wonders – one of them swearing it’s helped exponentially with their arthritis.

The Nutrition Facts of Natto

In terms of the nutrition values of natto, it contains around 212 calories for every 100-gram serving. It’s got 11 grams of fat, of which 2 grams are saturated. It’s high in protein – 18 grams per serving. As for carbohydrates, it scores at 14 grams. It has around 1 teaspoon and ¼ of sugar – around 5 grams - but no sodium and no cholesterol. Natto’s macronutrients are mostly comprised of fat (45%), protein (34%) and carbohydrates (25%). The kind of fat that it has is good for you, having 734 mg of omega-3 fatty acids.

What’s great about Natto is a large amount of vegan protein it provides for those who prefer not to take their protein from animals and animal byproducts.

Where Is It Best to Buy Natto?

Your nearest Japanese convenience store or market should have some ready-made natto on hand. There really aren’t any better brands – if it’s fresh and still sealed, you’re good to go. Ready-made natto comes in Styrofoam packs, with its sauces held in plastic (usually mustard and/or soy sauce) that you can add to it to give it more flavor. Otherwise, some restaurants serve natto, and you can find out which restaurants around your area serve natto by simply searching on google.

Buy a Starter, Make Your Own Natto

While most people find it more convenient to buy ready-made natto from the shop, others would prefer to make it themselves. If you have the proper equipment to work with as described in the previous paragraphs dictating the procedure of creating natto, then all you’ll need is a supply of the starter. You can buy the soybeans at any supermarket, but the natto starter is a little harder to find. You may buy the starters online, specifically in stores that are fermentation product themed.

There aren’t many negative aspects to natto, aside from its exquisitely acquired taste and smell. It’s benefit packed, and it’s a great cultural experience to have, especially if you’re in Japan. If you’re a little squeamish with the smell, just hold your breath and taste it anyway. It doesn’t taste the same as it smells, and you may just end up loving the Japanese delicacy that is natto.