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Natto

natto

Illustration by Yukiko Leitch

They say it takes four times to "get" natto. This is pure twaddle. Maybe it takes four exposures to get past the furtively - glancing - around - the - room - for - the - source - of - the - abominable - smell stage. After that, a few more tastings before you begin to buy the assertion that appreciating natto is just like appreciating a fine, aromatic (read: stinky) cheese. But to liken it to cheese does both a disservice; natto won' spread on bread, nor does it pair well with a fine, tawny port. Cheese doesn't taste good in miso soup.

So what then is natto? Natto is steamed soybeans that are fermented, sometimes in rice straw, until the beans have acquired their notorious nutty flavor, disturbing aroma and sticky slipperiness, held together like a spider web by gossamer-like threads.

How does it get this way? It's all in the secret sauce: the bacteria bacillus natto, which activates the fermentation process. After carefully-selected soybeans have been steamed in a steel vat, they are sprayed with this concoction, packed, then heated at 40-45C and 100% humidity for up to 24 hours. The result is a highly digestible, unabashedly nutritious super-food. Bean for bean, natto packs more nutritional wallop than even a pint of Guinness: iron and vitamins B2 and B12, plus 16.5 percent protein. WWII POWs likened the eating of these odoriferous soybeans to torture but natto probably saved many a man from starvation. Interest in it and other soyfoods has increased recently as scientists make the link between substances in soybeans that are thought to reduce the risk of cancers such as colon, prostate and breast cancer, as well as lower cholesterol and prevent osteoporosis.

Well and good, but we all know that being "good for you" is not enough, or else we'd all live on natto alone. Why are some 50,000 tons of soybeans turned into natto each year?

Natto is a fairly recent arrival on the Japanese food scene, having been around only since the later part of the Edo Period (1600-1868). (Curiously, it's reviled by Kansai folk.) It could be easily made at home; soybeans were packed in straw (which contained a natural bacillus) then buried for a week or so, in the ground or even under the family kotatsu. The modern method of making natto by injecting bacteria was first developed in Sendai. Nowadays it's sold everywhere - even the local conbini - in easily portable styrofoam containers.

Not just easy and good for you, natto is also versatile. Most often eaten for breakfast with rice and a raw egg, natto also pops up in miso soup, salads, with tofu, stuffed in omelets, served as a dip, even deep-fried as tempura, making it one of the most adaptable foods on the planet. And once you get past the initial disgust and aversion and actually (gulp!) acquire a taste for it, natto is delicious. If it only had better PR (and didn't smell quite so, well, sock-like), people the world over would be singing its praises. Happy and healthy natto fans, huddling around the kotatsu with their bowls of sticky beans, already know the tune. It goes "Natto natto man, I wanna be...a natto man...."

Aeve Baldwin

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