Simply put, natto is fermented soybeans. Fermentation is the process of changing a carbohydrate to an alcohol or acid. Usually this is done with a bacteria or with yeast. In the case of natto it’s Bacilus Subtilis bacteria. Sounds tasty, right?
Natto is quite common here in east Japan, but I hear that natto doesn’t have the same popularity in west Japan. Many people eat these fermented soybeans as a part of a Japanese Style Breakfast, which may include fish, miso soup, rice, and tofu. I also understand that at some preschool, kindergarten, and early-elementary school children eat natto as a snack. I’m not sure that would go over so well with children in America.
When you go into your local grocery story, usually near the tofu area, natto is neatly stored in these small, white styrofoam containers. There are smaller sized natto soybeans (the most common type) and the larger ones (which I don’t like all that much).
Natto’s smell is very…unique. Some of the foreigners I work with have explained the smell of natto as old cheese, old socks, hot garbage, etc. To me, the smell lies somewhere between cheese and old socks; it’s not the most pleasant of smells.
Another quality that makes natto so unappealing to most foreigners, is the texture. Natto is slippery and sticky at the same time. After mixing it, you end up with gooey, stringy, fermented, soybean goodness.
Some natto packages usually include a special congealed, sauce to add flavor. Other containers include soy sauce and strong mustard. You add this sauce (or mustard & soy sauce) the soybeans and mix it well until you get a very sticky, stringy mixture. You can then eat it as it is, serve it over rice, or eat it with toast (a student suggestion that I actually liked).
Hmmm…it’s hard to put natto’s taste into words, but I’ll try my best. It’s the heartiness of beans coupled with a savory flavor, a hint of salt (not overly so), and a hint of barbecue (depending on the kind you get).
Many foreigners avoid natto like the plague. I believe that it’s more of the texture and smell that gets people more so than the taste. When it comes to natto, there are three types of people; either 1) you love it, 2) you hate it, or 3) it grows on you. I am definitely a number three person, so I eat it quite regularly. I can assure you, you’ll figure which type you are soon after having your first natto exprience.