Cover image: Modern natto… put in on anything! © Meg for WhereNYC
“It is quite wonderful to see so many people interested in natto or just natto-curious,” Ms. Ann Yonetani, “microbiologist turned food entrepreneur/natto maker” (as per Japan Society), began. Ms. Yonetani shared the stage with her friend, former New York Times and current Serious Eats writer, and who’s also half Japanese, Mr. Sho Spaeth for a talk on natto. When they both met in 2016, Mr. Spaeth was baffled by Ms. Yonetani’s passion to promote natto in the United States because the fermented, pungent soybean would be a hard sell to the public.
But the natto industry could hardly hope for a better PR rep. Quirky with fun nerd vibe and clever, Ms. Yonetani unexpectedly became the ultimate “natto cheerleader.”
While natto is a “common day household food experience in Japan,” Ms. Yonetani explained, as a Japanese-American growing up in Philadelphia, it was impossible to find. It was during a visit to Japan when she first tried it. She does not remember her first time tasting natto, but she remembers that she eventually fell in love with it.
What is natto?
This “Japanese soul food” is essentially fermented soybeans. As a Japan-American myself, I was familiar with Ms. Yonetani’s description of the “most polarizing quality of natto.” In Japanese, it is referred to as neba neba, the sticky, stringy texture that natto has, similar to that of okra. We laughed when she said that it tastes “like Boston baked beans crossed with a stinky French cheese with the slippery mouth feel of Southern okra,” but added, “No, it tastes nothing like kimchi!” as she often finds herself saying to Americans. As I also grew up eating natto myself, Ms. Yonetani’s take was definitely spot on.
The term ‘superfood’ gets thrown around a lot, according to Ms. Yonetani, but natto has healthy properties. The two basic ingredients are soybeans and bacillus subtilis culture, a natural probiotic and a source of nattokinase, which is rich in Vitamin K2. Bacillus subtilis is a part of the microbiome, or beneficial microbes that we can’t possibly live without. Known as the best source of Vitamin K2, it can help strengthen bones, improve cardiovascular health and aid digestion. Nattokinase is a natural blood thinner, which may prevent stroke and heart disease and is sold in supermarkets such as Whole Foods.
To combat the decline in natto consumption in Japan, today there are many new varieties “to appeal to the younger generation.” For example, dried natto is sometimes served on Japan Airlines flights in place of peanuts. Traditionally, natto was more of a “breakfast staple,” Ms. Yonetani explained, served with a bowl of rice, scallions and soy sauce, and sometimes a raw egg. Though still her preferred way, Ms. Yonetani also likes to “throw [natto] on pretty much anything,” which she encouraged the audience to do the same. “Think of it like a cheese and put it on anything you’d put cheese on.”
Ms. Yonetani learned how to make natto from a fifth generation maker in Japan. One must “start from really good soybeans” and of a specific type. Interestingly, the majority (80%) of natto is made from U.S. grown soybeans and is fermented for one day only. “Fermentation makes food more digestible,” Ms. Yonetani explained. Natto began as an “accident,” just like many delicious common foods today, and it was likely discovered by samurai warriors when they fled with fermented soybeans wrapped in rice straw to prevent it from spoiling.
As founder of New York based natto company, NYrture Food, one of Ms. Yonetani’s missions is promote natto in the U.S. and around the world. “I think America is finally ready for it,” Ms. Yonetani explained. For beginners, she suggested trying “the black natto” as it is “much milder and chocolaty” and not as sticky as the traditional kind. Also “mix it with foods that will dilute or get rid of the gooeyness.” As mentioned before, the “neba neba” (sticky, stringy texture) quality is something that people either love or hate. Her company sells traditional, black, and even turmeric natto – the latter shocked the judges in this year’s natto competition in Japan.
Our tasting reception included new unorthodox varieties including: Natto Italiano, Black Natto Parfait, Natto Pani Puri and a traditional style Natto Maki Sushi served on a clear plate. The reception also served wine and soft drinks like a palette-cleanser. For me, the traditional style Natto Maki Sushi was the best. It had the familiar “neba neba,” character and distinct odor with the bitterness of traditional natto.
Although a daunting task, it would be great to see healthy options like natto become popular outside of Japan.