Natto is a food staple in Japan that has been widely enjoyed since at least the Edo period and which has a history that stretches back much further. Natto is traditionally made by packing steamed soybeans in straw and letting them ferment, typically for about a day, at a temperature usually somewhere between 86 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The straw attracts a fungus called Bacillus subtilis natto, or simply “nattō-kin” in Japanese, which transforms the soybeans through bacterial fermentation into the food product known as natto.
Natto is known to be a difficult food for many people to eat, at least at first. It has a strong smell and a slimy but sticky texture that is unlike almost anything a typical American would eat on a day to day basis. This characteristic stickiness is created during the fermentation process, with the sticky film produced contributing heavily to natto’s distinct umami flavor. Despite this, the popularity of natto has grown in recent decades, thanks in part to its high nutritional value, and it has even attracted interest overseas.
To eat natto, you should first stir the beans vigorously with chopsticks. This makes the beans easier to eat and also mixes in any additional ingredients like Japanese mustard, soy sauce, or chopped green onions, all of which are commonly eaten with natto. Afterwards, the mixture is often eaten as is or poured over rice as desired.
You can find natto in many Asian markets in the United States; usually in the refrigerated food section in small styrofoam packages. Some promise to have a less intense odor or be less sticky, which helps them appeal to American consumers. Recently, a few natto makers have started to produce natto locally in the United States. Americans have even developed their own styles of eating natto, such as adding honey or spreading the beans on crackers. Maybe it’s time for you to give it a try, too?
If you would like to know more about natto, there will be an event at the Japan Society located on East 47th Street, New York, NY on Wednesday, March 21 called “Natto: Japan’s Probiotic Superfood.” The event will be followed by a natto tasting reception.
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Japan Info is a publication of the Consulate General of Japan in New York; however, the opinions and materials contained herein do not necessarily represent the views or policies of the Government of Japan.