What is Natto?

If you’re here, you’ve probably already run into natto at least once.

Natto, pure and simple

Natto, pure and simple

I seem to be among the few American fans of Japanese fermented soybeans, and that was one reason I created this blog. Most of the information I could find in English about natto involved how disgusting Westerners think it is. Granted, my first time trying natto left me unimpressed. But then, on a trip to Japan, I gave it another try, and then it clicked. Natto grabbed me and would not let go! But then again, it kind of looks like it would do just that, doesn’t it?

Even within Japan, natto is largely a regional food. Northeastern Japan considers itself the mythical birthplace of natto, while people in southwestern areas of Japan are more likely to despise it. But there is much more to natto. So much more!

Let’s start at the beginning…

Natto is made using water, soybeans and natto bacilli. That’s all that is truly required. Salt may be added, or an additional fermentation agent, the fungus “koji” (commonly used in rice wine and soy sauce), may be used.

Traditionally, Japanese natto was made by packing soybeans into straw bundles, the straw itself serving as a source of naturally-occurring natto bacilli.

Today most commercially sold natto is pre-packed into individual servings in small, square polystyrene trays. Paper cups and small plastic tubs are also available, the latter more common among producers of natto outside of Japan.

Most natto exported outside of Japan seems to come in the square polystyrene trays, typically with a small sachet of sauce and an even tinier one of mustard. The sauce is often seasoned, with plum, shiso and seaweed flavors being among the most common.

It is also traditional to top your natto with soy sauce and chopped scallions. Once the frozen natto is thawed, you top it with the sauce according to your taste and stir it long enough to form the long, sticky strings known as “neba neba”.

Natto is typically a breakfast food eaten over rice. However, many Japanese also eat it at other times of day and serve it in a variety of ways, including on toast, mixed in with curry or noodles, or in maki rolls.

Natto toast

Natto toast

Natto is widely regarded as a health food in Japan and elsewhere. However, most of its health claims have yet to be clinically proven. Among these claims are benefits to digestion, improvements to skin tone, and cancer-fighting properties. Due to its fermented, biologically-active nature, it has been cited as having probiotic benefits. This blog does not subscribe to any particular health ideas about natto except for the easily-proven facts; it is high in protein, low in fat, and contains a relatively complete range of necessary vitamins and minerals. So it’s probably one of the healthier foods in our fridge.

Thanks to modern mass production and its status as both convenience food and a health food, natto consumption dramatically increased in Japan throughout the 20th century. Natto is also usually very cheap, even when imported from overseas. The various areas of this blog will cover the history and production of natto, its international variants, and eventually a growing list of reviews of commercially available natto, or at least what has been available at my local Japanese grocery.

Thanks for joining me on this natto journey!

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