• Posted by Marie Doezema on January 27th, 2009, 10:04 PM

    Funky, gooey, snotty, even gym sock-y—all are words that have been aimed at natto, Japan’s favorite fermented phenomenon. Love it or hate it, there’s no question that natto, a type of fermented soybeans, provokes strong responses. Devotees swear by its vitamin-packed sliminess, skeptics don’t even want to be in the same room with the stuff.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I am firmly and wholeheartedly in the former category. I can happily eat natto every day. I can spend alarmingly long chunks of time dreaming up new natto concoctions. Natto with apples? Natto with nuts? Natto pizza?

    I first encountered natto at a restaurant in the U.S. It was added to a sushi roll, and it lent an unusual taste—kind of smoky, a bit cheesy. Nutty but soft. Definitely slimy. When I moved to Japan, I found natto everywhere. Made from soybeans that are boiled then fermented by adding the bacterium natto bacillus, natto is fast and convenient. Available at almost any grocery store or convenience store, it comes ready to eat. Eat it straight from the container, or dump it on top of rice for an easy meal.

    Yes, natto has a distinctive funk. But it’s no worse than—or I should say, it’s as good as—that of an oozy French chèvre. To me, there’s nothing better than a fridge that smells like a goat farm when you open it. The smell of natto, fresh out of the pack, triggers a similar joy.

    But, even in Japan, there are plenty of people whose gag reflex kicks in when it comes to natto. It’s the Brussels sprouts of Japanese cuisine, the kind of thing parents force on their kids in the name of nutrition. Packed with protein and vitamin K, a rather elusive letter in the alphabetic scheme of vitamins, natto is good for the bones, digestion, and circulation. Some studies have even suggested it has an antibiotic effect. Like acidophilus-rich yogurt, natto is also full of healthy bacteria that are a byproduct of the fermentation process.

    If after all of this you’re still not stuck on natto, fear not: you can consume it in pill form. The stuff’s so good for you that nattokinase, an enzyme derived from natto, is sold as a dietary supplement. Savor or skip the slime, but get in your daily natto.

    No stranger to controversy, natto recently had an infamous brush with celebrity. A couple of years ago, a popular TV show in Japan touted natto as the dieter’s dream. Eat natto twice a day, a doctor on the show said, and you’re guaranteed to lose weight, pronto.

    Overnight, supermarkets sold out. Natto factory workers started clocking overtime in an attempt to keep up with demand. For days, shelves were empty.

    Many longtime loyalists were left sans natto. I was one such victim. Fortunately, I had a friend who was a glutton for fad diets, and this one was no exception. The morning after the show aired, she went to her local supermarket at 7 a.m. and bought as much natto as would fit in her freezer (it can be frozen without harming the natto bacillus, or good bacteria). Thankfully, she was willing to share a few packs.

    The craze lasted about a week, until it was revealed that the whole thing had been a hoax—made up for ratings. Suddenly there was natto everywhere. Shelves overflowed as supply continued to flow and fad dieters jumped ship. Eventually, things returned to normal.

    The beauty of natto lies in its versatility. It’s good on toast, for instance, with cheese or without. A tasty sandwich filling? Cottage cheese and natto.

    One of the most common ways of eating natto is over rice, for breakfast. Though traditionally sold wrapped in straw (one story has it that natto was created when a traveler forgot about the boiled soybeans he stashed in his pack before a long journey), modern-day natto usually comes in small paper cups or square Styrofoam containers. The fixin’s—small packets of tsuyu broth and karashi mustard, for example—come tucked inside. Whirl everything together until it’s gooey and looks like something you might find in the woods—a cocoon, or maybe a spider’s web. Add a raw egg, if you like, and spoon over rice for a simple but hearty breakfast.

    After convention comes experimentation, and that’s where the fun begins. There’s no end to what you can add to natto: thin slices of squid or any number of neba-neba (slimy or stringy) toppings, such as daikon, okra, grated yam, or seaweed. It’s also good in soups, stuffed into okonomiyaki (a sort of omelet/pancake hybrid), mixed with kimchi, or served on tofu.

    It’s a common pasta topping in Japan, an easy dish to make when you’re low on ingredients and time (like the Japanese equivalent of mac n’ cheese). Combine natto and pasta with a bit of shoyu, olive oil or butter, and top it with scallions and slices of nori seaweed.

    Try a variation on guacamole by adding chopped avocado to natto. Mix until it turns into a scrumptious mess. Spread on top of crackers or serve with raw veggies.

    Seasonal salads are another place to integrate natto. A crunchy favorite of mine in the warmer months is natto with sliced radishes and cucumbers, spooned over salad greens. For something heartier in the winter months, try natto with apples, roasted sweet potatoes, and toasted walnuts. (Avocado would be a welcome addition in both of these; in my experience, it acts as a mediator between other flavors in the mix, no matter how wacky.)

    For a real showstopper, try a mixture of natto, seafood (salmon roe, fatty tuna, sea urchin, squid, or a combo), veggies (okra, yam, something slimy), and raw quail egg. Mix it all together with a bit of wasabi and a dash of shoyu, wrap it in pieces of nori seaweed, and swoon.

    I haven’t yet incorporated natto into any desserts, but a friend recommends her favorite bedtime sweet treat: natto with maple syrup. I’m intrigued.

    Note: Many Asian markets in the U.S. sell natto. If you’re in Japan, you need only to go to the nearest 7-11. For some good reads and recipes, see right.

    Marie Doezema is a freelance writer and editor en route to New York from Japan, currently experiencing a long stopover in Qatar.

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