Japanese Food: What Is Natto?

By Donald Ash | Articles

Natto...Yummy.

Quite frankly, Japan has some of the strangest foods I’ve ever eaten in my life. I never thought I’d be snacking on raw fish on regular basis, or eating fish eyeballs (no…I’m not kidding this time…I’ll have to post the video someday soon), or craving eel. Despite how strange some of the foods can be, Japan also has some delectable dishes as well: ramen, udon, soba, unadon, shabu shabu, yaki niku, yakitori, takoyaki…get the idea? In my opinion, the good Japanese foods far outnumber the bad ones. However, there are some special cases, some foods that lurk in that gray area, foods that straddle that all too fine line between pleasant and putrid. One food that instantly comes to mind, is natto (なっとう)

What is Natto?

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

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.

Natto’s Texture

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.

How to Prepare and Eat Natto

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).

How does it taste?

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.

Good luck,

Donald Ash

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Donald Ash is an Atlanta, Georgia-born, American expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last ten years. While in that time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator of thejapanguy.com blog. Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.
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