Natto gets a bad rap because of its powerful scent and unique texture, but this Japanese fermented soybean dish can be quite enjoyable when paired with the right ingredients.
Because natto has been around for centuries, its exact origins are difficult to trace. However, the general consensus among historians is that natto was discovered by leaving soybeans in a straw container. When Japanese researchers discovered a way to isolate the natto starter bacterium during the Taisho period, commercial production of the fermented soybeans became possible. Since then, natto has been widely consumed in Japan. Its worldwide popularity, however, is slow to climb as the dish’s scent and texture are extremely unfamiliar to foreign consumers.
Taste, Smell, and Texture
Natto has a mild earthy flavor with a hint of nuttiness at the finish. In contrast to this delicate flavor profile, natto has a powerful and pungent scent, reminiscent of strong aged cheese. Its texture, meanwhile, is uniquely sticky and stringy. The intact fermented soybeans have a creamy, mucilaginous coating that stretches when the natto is pulled apart.
To make natto, soybeans are first soaked for upwards of 12 hours then softened by steaming. The prepared soybeans are then mixed with a bacterium called Bacillus subtilis, otherwise known as Bacillus natto. This mixture is transferred to a temperature-controlled room and is left to ferment for 24 hours or until a sticky glutamic acid film fully coats the soybeans.
In Japanese cuisine, natto is used primarily for textural interest rather than flavor. Its slippery texture and slight chew provide a lovely contrast to soft rice or flaky fish. The fermented soybeans are commonly eaten for breakfast, over a bowl of steamed white rice, with a side of broiled fish and miso soup. It’s also used as a popular sushi roll filling.
Because the flavor of natto is so mild, it typically comes packaged with soy sauce and Japanese mustard. It’s also often topped with chopped green onions. The added saltiness and sharp tang of the condiments highlight natto’s delicate nuttiness and slightly sweet undertone while the freshness of the green onion balances out its earthiness.