Natto: A Guide To The Japanese Superfood

Natto is a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans. It has been a staple in Japanese cuisine for centuries and is known for its unique flavor and texture. Learn more about natto here, including how it's made, its health benefits, and different ways to eat it!

natto served on a bed of rice in a rice bowl with a pair of chopsticks natto served on a bed of rice in a rice bowl with a pair of chopsticks

What is Natto?

Natto is a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans. Its characteristic flavor, texture and smell have made it quite famous. Green beans are sticky and slimy with a strong, pungent aroma and a flavor that can be described as savory, nutty and a little cheesy. While this seems daunting, natto is a popular ingredient in Japanese cuisine that is eaten at any meal and used in various dishes such as sushi. He also recently appeared in the popular TV series “Shogun”. The scenes featuring natto in the Shogun series showcase natto's unique texture and flavor.

While some people immediately love natto, for others it's definitely an acquired taste. This was my case; when I first tried natto I wasn't a fan at all, but now I love eating it with rice and love the health benefits that come from eating it.

natto in a white square package with mustard and sauce folders natto in a white square package with mustard and sauce folders

How is Natto made?

The natto fermentation process involves adding a specific strain of bacteria, called Bacillus subtilis, to cooked soybeans. This bacterium produces an enzyme called nattokinase, which gives natto its distinct taste and texture.

The process of making natto begins with steaming or boiling the soybeans until they are fully cooked. The cooked soybeans are then cooled and inoculated with a specific strain of bacteria called Bacillus subtilis.

After inoculation, the soybeans are incubated at a warm temperature for a period of time, usually 24 to 48 hours. During this time, bacteria ferment the soybeans, producing nattokinase, which gives natto its unique properties.

The fermentation process also leads to the formation of a sticky, slimy substance around the soybeans, which is characteristic of natto.

Once fermentation is complete, natto is generally stored in the refrigerator to slow further fermentation and maintain freshness.

It's important to note that making homemade natto can be a bit tricky and requires careful temperature control and bacteria management. It's possible to make your own with natto starters, but most people prefer to purchase commercially produced natto in stores or online.

natto on rice in a rice bowl and a pair of chopsticks lifting the natto natto on rice in a rice bowl and a pair of chopsticks lifting the natto

What does Natto taste like?

Natto has a unique, acquired taste that may not be appreciated by everyone. As I mentioned before, it has a sticky, slimy texture with a pungent odor similar to a combination of cheese, soy sauce, and ammonia. Some people find the smell overpowering, while others find it intriguing and appetizing.

In terms of flavor, natto has a slightly bitter and nutty flavor. The fermentation process gives it a tangy, flavorful quality that is distinctly different from other soy products.

Why should I eat Natto? Health Benefits of Natto

One of the reasons natto is popular is because it is packed with nutrients and offers numerous health benefits. This fermented superfood is a good source of protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and contains beneficial bacteria that can support gut health.

Natto is an excellent source of plant-based protein, making it an excellent choice for vegetarians and vegans. Contains all the essential amino acids needed for optimal health and muscle growth.

Its rich content of fiber, vitamins and nattokinase is beneficial for promoting heart health and preventing heart disease. The fiber in natto can promote healthy digestion and reduce cholesterol levels, while the presence of vitamin K can help prevent blood clotting and improve blood flow. Additionally, the fermentation process increases the bioavailability of the fiber, allowing the body to absorb and use it more effectively. Nattokinase, the enzyme produced during the natto fermentation process, has also been found to lower blood pressure and help reduce the risk of stroke.

Another result of the fermentation process is the production of probiotics. Probiotic-rich foods help balance your gut bacteria to ensure you maintain a healthy balance of microorganisms in your digestive system, which is essential for overall well-being. They also help improve digestive function and can strengthen the immune system.

Natto is also rich in zinc, manganese, magnesium and copper which help maintain bone health. Natto's high vitamin K2 content also helps with this as vitamin K2 plays a crucial role in bone health by helping to transport calcium into the bones and teeth, which can reduce the risk of osteoporosis and tooth decay.

There are many other health benefits to eating natto, so incorporating it into your diet is beneficial to your well-being and helps maintain a healthy body!

three packets of natto three packets of natto

Where to buy Natto?

Natto can be found in many Asian grocery stores, especially those specializing in Japanese products. It usually comes in a pack of three small white square polystyrene boxes (as the picture shows). They are sold frozen so you will find them in the freezer section.

If you don't have access to a local Asian grocery store, you can also purchase natto online from various retailers. There are several brands that offer pre-packaged natto, both traditional and flavored varieties.

When purchasing natto, it is important to check the expiration date and storage instructions to ensure its freshness and quality.

How to integrate it into your diet?

Natto can be eaten on its own, but it is also a versatile ingredient that can be incorporated into various dishes to enhance its flavor and nutritional value.

Here are some ideas for incorporating natto into your diet:

  • Roll the natto in sushi rice and nori (seaweed) to create small “natto maki” sushi rolls.
  • Mix natto with soy sauce, mustard and green onions to create a flavorful dressing or dip for noodles or salads.
  • Use natto as a filling for omelettes or scrambled eggs. The combination of creamy eggs and gooey natto can be a delicious breakfast or brunch option.
  • Add natto to soups and stews to give them a rich, flavorful flavor. It pairs well with miso soup, vegetable broth and even ramen.
  • Experiment with different seasonings and ingredients to create your own natto recipes. From fries to wraps, the possibilities are endless.

Remember to start with small amounts of natto if you are unfamiliar with its taste and texture. Gradually increase the amount as you develop a liking for it.

By incorporating natto into your diet, you can explore the culinary delights of this fermented soy superfood and reap the nutritional benefits. I have also shared more Natto recipes in our book “The secret of Japanese cuisine”.

natto served over rice in a rice bowlnatto served over rice in a rice bowl

Tips for serving and enjoying Natto

  • Serve with rice: Natto is commonly enjoyed as a topping for steamed rice. The combination of the nutty flavors of the rice and the umami-rich natto creates a delicious and satisfying meal.
  • Add condiments: To add more flavor and texture, consider adding condiments such as chopped green onions, soy sauce or mustard. These toppings complement the taste of natto and create a delicious contrast.
  • Mix well: Before eating, make sure to mix the natto thoroughly. This helps evenly distribute the gooey texture and flavors.
  • Explore different recipes: Natto can be used in a variety of dishes, such as natto sushi rolls, natto omelettes or natto stir-fries. Don't be afraid to experiment and discover new ways to incorporate natto into your meals.
  • Enjoy it as a breakfast food: In Japan, natto is often eaten as a nutritious breakfast dish. Its high protein content and unique flavor make it a great way to start your day.
a pair of chopsticks lifting natto from a bowl of ricea pair of chopsticks lifting natto from a bowl of rice

How to store?

Before consuming refrigerated or frozen natto, always check for signs of spoilage, such as an unusual odor or discoloration. If in doubt, it is best to discard it to avoid potential food-borne illness.

If you buy them frozen, store them in the freezer and thaw them at room temperature before eating them.

If you purchased refrigerated natto, it can last about 7-10 days in the refrigerator if stored properly. However, its flavor and texture may change over time, so it is best to consume it as soon as possible for a better taste experience.

If you have leftover natto that you don't plan on using within the recommended storage period, you can freeze it. Freezing natto can extend its shelf life by several months, but keep in mind that the texture may become slightly grainy after thawing.

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