Natto. How many of you know it or had a chance to taste it?
I don’t think many of us (I mean, foreigners in Japan) have been able to appreciate it at first bite (or at first look).
I remember bringing a pack of it to Italy last winter so that my family could taste it. On every trip that I do, I love to bring home some funny souvenirs, far from my “comfort zone”, to share with my friends and family?
Faced with the many questions about what we were eating every day here in Japan, I took advantage of it and show them concretely a piece of our diet.
Yo laughed watching at my mother and father trying to stay compos while, with their faces clearly in trouble, they were saying the natto was simply far from their taste but not too bad (layers).
(Unexpectedly, the only person who did appreciated it was my 2 and a half-year-old nephew.)
Me first. If today Natto is my daily breakfast, I owe it to Yo, who is obsessed with it, and to my taste buds that, after more than a year, have finally settled to the new flavors of this country.
What do we eat in the morning at our house?
Forget croissant and cappuccino. Steamed rice, natto, and miso soup.
Attention. Don’t be afraid!
If you come here on holiday, you will hardly be offered Natto for breakfast as the Japanese themselves know very well that its flavor is far from our tastes. Whether you’re in the country or in the city, you can find great Western-style breakfasts (I recommend to stop by a Japanese bakery, their bread is incredible!)
Both Yo and I often try to include traditional Japanese ingredients in our daily meals. First of all, because we love the flavors, but especially because we both think that at the foundation of Japanese cuisine there is a strong desire to nourish the body in a healthy, complete way, and Natto, is an example.
Despite the fact that nowadays the phenomenon of globalization has made it incredibly easy to find ingredients from all over the world in the supermarket close to our house, Natto has not yet arrived on our shelves, and its name has not caught on among the most famous Japanese products.
Natto refers to a Washoku dish made of fermented soybeans. Do not consider it a complete meal in itself. It is an accompanying ingredient, served in its most traditional form on the top of steaming white rice.
It is characterized by a pungent smell, slightly annoying for our western noses, and a slightly bitter aftertaste, not at all intrusive. What makes it a unique product (and makes it difficult to eat) is its sticky and “slimy” texture, from the fermentation of beans.
Yes, you got it right. Fermentation.
Don’t be frightened by the word because it is not synonymous with “gone wrong”. This ancient preservation technique is still used in our daily diet (try to think of foods like cheese, wine, yogurt …) and ensures benefits to our digestive and immune system.
One of the reasons that make Japanese families consume Natto almost every day, is due to its positive properties for the body.
Fermentation allows the transformation and production of various useful substances, such as amino acids, fatty acids, glutamic acid (causes of its sticky texture), fibers, vitamins, minerals and enzymes (among which NattoKinase stands out for its importance).
Scientific studies have shown that the constant consumption of natto allows:
– Improvement of the digestive system. Improved development of the bacterial flora of our intestines thanks to the probiotic action;
– Contributes to the strengthening of our bones. 100 g of Natto contains 22% of the recommended daily quantity of calcium;
– Promotes heart health. While fiber and probiotics control cholesterol content, Nattokinase, a type of enzyme, allows blood clots to fade away, stabilizing and controlling blood pressure.
– It improves our immune system.
It is certainly not a daily practice by Japanese families, but, unlike what you might think, the natto can also be prepared in our kitchens. What you need are very few ingredients, patience and particular attention to the use of containers and kitchen tools well sterilized.
Once rinsed, the soybeans are completely immersed in cold water and left to rest for more than 12 hours, until they double (almost triple) in volume. They are then boiled or steamed until they are soft enough to break easily with finger pressure.
While still hot, they are sprinkled with a specific bacterium called Bacillus Subtilis that will allow the start of fermentation. This process will last 18-24 hours and is complete when you will start to observe white filaments on the surface of the beans.
To stop the fermentation process just put it in the refrigerator. It can be conserved for up to 3-4 days.
If Natto is starting to interest you and tempt your palate, know that here in Japan you will find a wide range to choose from. Whether you’re in a supermarket or in your favorite conbini, you’ll find it wrapped in colorful packs with different flavors and textures.
There are some elements to take into account before purchasing it.
Size of Soybean Bean
You can find beans in the following sizes:
Hikiwari (crushed) > Heavily crushed beans (they are popular in Sushi);
Gokuko Tsubu (very small)
Kotsubu (small) > together with “gokuko tsubu” are ideal with rice as they are easy to take with chopsticks and to mix with rice
Tsaku (big) > together with the “nakatsubu” are characterized by a more intense smell than the other categories (I advise you not to jump on this size if you taste Natto for the first time);
Generally, nattō is eaten with soy sauce, but each brand actually has its own special version.
Some examples are sauces based on algae or dashi, flavors of perilla leaf, daikon, ume (Japanese plum), black vinegar, salt and so on. Due to a mainly female consumer (it is said that Natto helps to lose weight and makes you younger), you can also find unusual varieties that contain collagen bacteria or lactic acid.
Have you found the right taste for you? Here’s what to do before you pour it on your white rice.
1) Once you open the package, you will find small bags with sauces, along with a transparent plastic sheet that covers the natto.
2) Set aside the bags and remove the transparent sheet that covers it. I warn you that the side in contact with the beans will be incredibly sticky. I suggest you to use the sticks to remove it so that you don’t get your hands stuck with the fermentation filaments!
3) Open the bags and pour the seasonings (it does not matter the order and do not be too precise).
4) With the help of the chopsticks, mix the beans and sauces until a white patina is formed on the surface. If you see white filaments when you lift the chopsticks, you have done a good job!
Warning: the more you mix the Natto, the more intense its slimy texture and flavor will be.
A random discovery
If nowadays we can find it mainly sold in small polyester packages, know that in the past, Natto was prepared and stored in containers made entirely of straw.
Straw naturally contains that bacterium (Bacillus Subtilis), which, once in contact with boiled beans, starts the fermentation process.
Tradition says that Natto was discovered in the Yayoi period (300 B.C. to 250 A.D.) by the accidental contact of boiled soybeans (the daily food of poor people) with straw (the material that covered the floors). Faced with the philosophy of “no waste”, when the Japanese tasted it, they found an unexpected and exhilarating taste, which quickly spread, becoming in a short time a dish consumed on a large scale throughout the country.
Until now we have always talked about Natto and white rice but… there are also other ways in which you can eat it, some even a little unusual.
Let’s start with the simplest.
There are several ingredients that go perfectly with Natto, such as chives, leeks, raw eggs, chopped nori seaweed or miso soup.
These are probably the most common ways in which it is served, but they are not the only ones.
In niche restaurants, you can order it on steaming curry, fresh tofu, as a filling for tamagoyaki or Chinese ravioli (gyoza).
There are also more modern versions such as Pizza Natto, Natto Toast, Donuts with Natto or Natto dehydrated to eat as a snack. (I’ve never tried these versions but I still prefer its more traditional one).
Walking through Shimokitazawa we even found a street vending machine entirely dedicated to natto!
In short, its extravagant variety of uses allows us to try it in different situations, is a food with great benefits for our intestines and something unusual away from our tastes, so why not try to give him a chance?