Smelly, sticky, stringy, slimy, delicious, healthy: Natto. You'll either love it or hate it!
Written by Kevin Kilcoyne (@kevinjkilcoyne)
Unlike the numerous words used to describe it, there are few foods more ubiquitously strange in the Japanese culinary canon than natto.
For those familiar with the sticky, stringy, delicious stuff, they usually harbor one of two feelings. They either love it or hate it. There is little room for other sentiments in the polarized world of natto.
For those unfamiliar with natto, it is a traditional Japanese food made of fermented beans, which are most often soy beans. Prepackaged in small styrofoam containers, they usually come along with tare (a sauce), and perhaps some karashi (spicy mustard).
Enjoyed by many Japanese people as a breakfast staple, natto can be purchased at any supermarket or convenience store in packs of two or three, and can range in price from the utilitarian to the high priced artisanal.
Now what makes natto so polarizing is its texture and its smell. When stirred (though there is debate as to how many times: 424 or no more than fifteen) the beans become sticky and stringy, creating a texture known in Japanese cuisine as neba-neba. This can make eating them quite fun, or quite challenging depending on how you look at it.
If you can stomach the slime and get past the pungent aroma, natto is actually rather mild in flavor, described as being nutty and even having some hints of coffee. And as simple as its components may be, there are a variety of ways that natto can be enjoyed. While some prefer it straight from the styrofoam container, others enjoy it heaped atop a steaming bowl of rice, perhaps accompanied by a sprinkling of bright green negi (green onions) and a fresh orange egg yolk cracked over the top. Natto even finds its way into sushi rolls (nattomaki) and into soups (nattojiru.)
Along with the traditional wet, stringy version of the dish, a dry version of natto also exists. In order to make this variation, the fermented beans are either sun dried, freeze dried, or fried at low temperatures in order to preserve the natto bacterial cultures. While the freeze drying method removes the moisture and outright smell of the beans, the aroma and sticky texture still reactivate when eaten. On the other hand, the slow frying method does not reactivate these characteristics, resulting in a crispy snack that just might be a good gateway into the world of natto.
Now, natto isn’t just touted for its ability to illicit strong reactions, it is actually incredibly nutritious. Its history as a health food dates back to 17th and 18th century Edo Japan. Packed with probiotics from the fermentation process, it not only makes the beans more digestible, but it also helps keep the bacteria in your gut healthy and your immune system strong. And although the stringy neba-neba texture might be the most off-putting characteristic of natto, that is where the heart healthy enzyme nattokinase is most concentrated. Created in the process of fermentation, nattokinase has been shown through several studies to help dissolve blood clots and lower blood pressure. And if those benefits weren’t enough to convince you, natto is also high in vitamins and minerals including vitamin K2, manganese, iron, calcium, and vitamin C.
So either through your first batch of jikasei natto (homemade natto), or maybe even a nattomaki at your local Japanese restaurant, give the stringy beans a try. You never know. It might just be the gateway you need into the world of Japanese fermented foods. Your gut and your tastebuds will no doubt thank you.
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@kevinjkilcoyne) where he posts his illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food.