Natto Is One of Japan's Funkiest Fermented Foods

By: Stephanie Vermillion  | 

Natto
Natto is a traditional Japanese dish made from steamed and fermented soybeans that is usually eaten with white rice. Yuuji/Getty Images

If your breakfast (or snacks) needs a makeover, consider natto. It's a traditional Japanese meal of healthy and nutritious fermented soybeans.

Sure, the idea of fermented soybeans first thing in the morning is definitely not as American as eggs and bacon or a bowl of cereal, but according to Tsunagu Japan, a Japan-based inbound tourism site, many people there eat it daily. Why? Well for one natto is packed with vitamin K, soy protein and dietary fiber. And, since the soybeans in natto undergo the fermentation process, it creates conditions that promote the growth of probiotics, according to Healthline.

Karen Zhao, Intrepid Travel's North and Central Asia product manager, says it's also considered a superfood "and one of the secrets to Japanese longevity."

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Trying Natto for the First Time

Still not sold on fermented beans for breakfast (or at all)? You're not alone. The fermentation process leads gives natto a unusual, pungent smell, and Zhao says the first time you try it might be a bit shocking. "It does have a very strong taste; it's salty, slimy and sticky," she says via email. "Both the taste and the texture are quite off-putting to those who are not accustomed to it. Some would compare it to blue cheese in the west."

But that doesn't mean Zhao's food-tour clients don't like it. "Those who are more brave would give it a try, but it's an acquired taste," she says.

If you can get past the sliminess and "aroma," you can enjoy a variety of natto benefits, including these five natto perks that have us more than ready to dig in.

Natto
Natto is often described as "slimy," though it's likely the pungent aroma that is hardest to get past.
taa22/Shutterstock

1. Natto Is a Superfood on the Rise

Natto, which is fermented using B. subtilis bacteria, is chock-full of nutrition. It contains vitamin B-6, folate, pantothenic acid and various additional antioxidants, according to Healthline. The food's fermentation process also promotes the growth of probiotics, which can help ease digestion and improve the gut's ability to absorb nutrients. These are among the many reasons natto is reaching superfood status; it's also a healthier alternative to boiled soybeans.

2. It's a Traditional Japanese Food

Want to try real Japanese food? Natto's a great place to start. Zhao says it is believed to date back thousands of years. Nobody knows exactly where it got its start, but its earliest versions were made from steamed soybeans wrapped in rice straw. The rice straw bacteria adhered to the beans and prompted the fermentation process. Today it's typically more of a home-breakfast meal than one you'd find in a restaurant. So consider it the very definition of eating like a local.

Natto in rice straw
The earliest versions of natto were made from steamed soybeans wrapped in rice straw.
Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

3. Natto Is Quick and Easy

Natto is available in supermarkets and convenience stores in Japan, or online via sites like Amazon. It's often sold in ready-to-eat packs. Size options include large, medium and small (depending on the size of the bean). According to Tsunagu Japan, the easiest way to eat natto is simply opening the package, removing the film, adding the sauce and diving in.

natto
Packets of seasoning sauce and mustard typically come in ready-to-eat packs of natto.
Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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4. Top Natto With Seasonings

The natto flavor itself may take some getting used to, but many people top it with traditional Japanese condiments to spice up the taste. "Usually we mix natto with Japanese soy sauce, mustard and then mix with rice," Zhao says. Other popular toppings include green onions, kimchi, wasabi, cheese, nori (seaweed) or umeboshi (pickled plums). Given the sticky texture, it's best to eat natto with chopsticks.

5. You Can Make Natto at Home

Making natto at home is doable, but it does take a bit of time to ferment the beans. According to Cultures for Health, natto requires two full days to make. The natto must be kept at between 100 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit (37 to 46 degrees Celsius) for 22 to 24 hours for fermentation. And be prepared for a day's worth of seriously pungent fermentation odors. But remember, the smell is worth it in the end.

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