Slimy usually isn’t a selling point when you’re talking about food, but if it’s natto we’re talking about, that’s a large part of the appeal. In fact, “slimy” is one of the more appealing descriptors, followed by gluey, stringy, and mucilaginous, and that’s before we even get to the flavor.
What Is Natto?
Either you love it or you hate it; there’s no middle ground for this polarizing food. These fermented soybeans have been a staple of Japanese cuisine for hundreds of years, serving as a method of preservation and added nutrition as early as the Yayoi period (300 BCE – 300 CE.) It became a staple of shojin-ryori, providing meatless protein to Buddhist monks, and even fed samurai while traveling towards battle.
Natto requires only two ingredients: whole, cooked soybeans and Bacillus subtilis cultures. The process shares many similarities with miso and soy sauce, but is much faster, taking 24 hours or less to mature.
Despite being an acquired taste for many, natto endures as a powerful superfood. Some companies have gone so far as to powder and capsulize it for those who can’t stomach the full experience. That said, nothing can compare to the genuine article, packing in more iron, manganese, copper, and fiber than an equal amount of any meat. Let’s not forget about all that cholesterol-free plant protein, and more probiotics than the average yogurt cup. Studies have shown it can help improve bone density, lower blood pressure, and aid in digestion, just for starters.
Natto’s real claim to nutritional fame is Nattokinase, an enzyme unique to the fermented beans, that many studies have found to be beneficial in combating heart disease. It’s also very high in Vitamin K2, which contributes to skin and bone health, metabolism, and brain function, and can be difficult to find from plant-based sources otherwise.
What Does Natto Taste Like?
Natto is not for everyone. Polls have shown that even self-described fans of the stuff are split on their actual enjoyment of it, admitting that it’s a regular part of their diet for the health benefits, not the flavor.
The soybeans themselves are subtly nutty, earthy, and tender. Once fermented, they take on a funky character somewhat like Brie cheese that can vary in intensity. It’s salty, richly umami, and can sometimes have a slightly bitter finish. Some prepared natto is seasoned with dashi, giving it a fishy aroma.
Neba-neba is the Japanese term that describes its unmistakable texture; stretchy, slimy, and sticky. This quality is exaggerated when stirred, which incorporates air and thickens the natto.
Buying Or Making Natto
Typically sold in 3-packs, ready-to-eat natto is found in most Asian specialty stores either in the freezer aisle nearby the vegetables and edamame, or in the refrigerated produce section not far from the miso pastes. It’s important to read labels carefully, because many contain non-vegan ingredients, namely fish in many forms. This could appear on labels as:
- Tuna extract
- Dried fish
- Fish sauce
You can bypass all of those possible pitfalls by making your own natto at home. If you’ve ever made kimchi, sauerkraut, or yogurt, you can make natto! The key is buying the right cultures and then just letting it do its thing.
Natto Serving Suggestions
Managing the texture and finding complementary flavor pairings is the key to enjoying natto. There’s nothing else quite like it, so your best bet is to just try it for yourself!
- Breakfast is when natto truly shines. The simplest, most traditional approach is to add karashi (hot mustard), soy sauce, and thinly sliced scallions before serving over hot cooked rice. This is, of course, fairly intense and not the best way to win over natto newbies.
- To that end, I’d recommend starting out with natto maki sushi rolls. Being able to cut it into distinct bites cuts down on the stringy, slimy texture considerably, so you can focus on whether or not the flavor is to your liking.
- Similarly, it’s a great filling for onigiri, which can then be grilled to give you much needed crunchy contrast on the outside.
- For a more western take, you can use natto to top buttered toast or avocado toast. Lightly mash it first if you’d like more of a subtle spread.
Have you tried natto before? Don’t let any naysayers scare you off; it really can be a delicious addition to a healthy diet!