Japan Today



Ask not what natto can do for you

Image: KPS/iStock

Hone-shaburi, literally sucking on bones, is a Japanese expression roughly equivalent to have been "bled dry" in English. This name has been humorously applied to the book review column in Weekly Playboy magazine. Which in its May 27 issue reviews a book titled Natto no Shokubunka-shi (The Food Culture History of Natto), a 301-page hardcover book by Satoshi Yokoyama.

Yokoyama holds a PhD in science and is known in academic circles for his geographical study on the basis for existence of mountainous villages in northern Laos. 

Natto are fermented soybeans, which along with tofu and miso, is one of the three main sources of vegetable-based protein in the Japanese diet. They are to a large extent a regional food consumed in east Japan, being less common in Kansai, Shikoku and Kyushu. 

Despite their nutritious properties and comparatively low cost, natto have a reputation for being widely reviled by non-Japanese, many of whom find their ammonia-like smell and gooey consistency somewhat repugnant.

The photo accompanying the review shows a pair of chopsticks lifting a blob of beans from a bowl trailing threads in their wake -- underscoring natto's slimy consistency. The caption reads, "The first record of natto in Japan dates back to the Taiho Ritsuryo (Taiho Code) of 701 CE. According to a familiar legend, the method for producing natto is credited to Prince Shotoku." 

The book under review was published in 2021 by Saitama-based Nozan Gyoson Bunka Kyokai. The reason for the three-year delay might be due to a revived interest in natto following the recent wave of price increases affecting foodstuffs.

According to Shokuhin Shimbun (Feb 23), a trade publication covering the food industry, natto have been on a roll. Despite price increases of 6 to 7% imposed by manufacturers earlier this year, the sales volume has been largely unaffected, probably because retail prices for most natto products remain in the "two-digit range," i.e., below ¥100 per pack.  

Meanwhile, Shokuhin Shimbun reported that major manufacturers have been working to develop new value-added products with additional health claims, such as Mizkan's "Natto Effect Intestinal Care," which was released last February. 

The book reviewer begins by stating that he always stocks natto at home, preferring it as an inexpensive and convenient source of protein. Typically it is consumed atop a bowl of steaming rice, although for variety it can be eaten atop buckwheat noodles or pasta.  

The reviewer cites a book he read advising that the organic nutrients in natto are killed when heated above 60 degrees Centigrade, so cooking at high temperatures is to be avoided. 

Consumption of soybeans fermented with a type of bacteria present in straw are by no means exclusive to Japan, he writes. They can be found in Korea, and from Nepal to Vietnam, in Indonesia, and in countries as far away as west Africa. In Myanmar, the beans are used as a seasoning, or can be baked into patties that can be preserved. 

From this it is apparent that Japan may only be unique in that it consumes natto almost exclusively in an uncooked state. This leads the reviewer to ponder the paucity of variation in methods of consuming natto. 

Since the modern Japanese diet is so diverse and competition so fierce, why not be content to limit natto consumption to being plopped atop a bowl of steaming rice, and leave it at that? Well, just as birds living on isolated islands without natural enemies tend to evolve with larger physiques, the natto food culture has assumed a greater presence in its geographic area owing to its lack of competitors. 

That said, variations on natto consumption have evolved, albeit on a limited basis. For instance, in northeast Japan, natto is utilized to make a soup, natto-jiru. In Daisen, a city of 72,000 in southern Akita Prefecture, mashed natto are blended with miso or soup stock for use as a condiment. And the inhabitants of coastal areas of Akita use it to produce a fish sauce called shossuru.

These variations, prepared by residents in the inland mountainous parts of the prefecture, somewhat resemble the ways soybeans are consumed in other Asian countries.

Since the Japanese diet has no lack of sources of protein, where does that leave natto? Mainly, it would seem, as a health food. Natto is an inexpensive source of dietary fiber, protein, minerals and vitamins. Along with polyamine, an organic compound with anti-aging restorative properties, it boasts numerous other beneficial ingredients.

Still, without more variation, writes the reviewer, natto may someday find itself at a dead end; to avoid this, the reviewer suggests, makers need to study foreign models and experiment with new products.

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

Login to comment

to each his own, but I personally LOVE natto.

8 ( +9 / -1 )

to each his own, but I personally LOVE natto.

Same here.

Good taste and knowing you are eating something healthy and inexpensive is the icing on the cake so to speak.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Now I can't get the image of smelly slimy beans on cake out of my head. Arrgh!

I feel ill.

1 ( +5 / -4 )

The one food I don't eat but my partner does every day.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

I would like to find a way to make it palatable. I had natto gyoza once which was good because no smell.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

I would like to find a way to make it palatable.

Personally, I mix in a (hefty) bit of karashi with the usual pack-in tare before foaming it up. Maybe some beni shoga on the side, on a bowl of fresh rice ... best breakfast ever. Honestly, if I had to choose one meal for the rest of my life, this would be really high up on the list.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

a 301-page hardcover book by Satoshi Yokoyama.

How the heck can you write 300 pages on the subject of natto??

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

I really like maguro. It's great on rice and when I was there I often ate it with maguro and quail egg for breakfast. Delicious stuff. The flavor is really good. I don't see why non-Japanese people don't like it. It is different, yes, but good different.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Check that. I really like natto. (I really like maguro. It was on my mind so I made a mistake. I really like natto is what I meant.)

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Sorry I have experienced some of the most pungent smelling cheeses in France

Nothing comes close to Natto.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

When I go abroad, natto is the one thing I want to eat when I come back. It seems to me that natto haters are mostly Americans who have a very narrow range of acceptable flavours.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Mix up natto as you would when you put it on rice, with raw egg, soy sauce and negi, place in a gyoza wrapper, twist to close it and deep fry. Delicious!

The first time I had natto it was with finely sliced ika (squid), wasabi, soy sauce and a quail egg. "Ika natto." Fabulous.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

BertieWooster, truly you are a connoisseur of Japan cuisine.

I have honestly taken time out to sample Natto, its a delicacy I struggle with.

My Mother worships the gooey pungent aroma of fermented soybeans.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I think you guys are confusing the word "fermented" (発酵された) with "rotten" (腐っている). You wouldn't eat rotten bread, would you? Why do you eat rotten beans? I love edamame. To purposely destroy soy beans should be a crime.

-5 ( +0 / -5 )

The taste is terrible, and, as for the health benefits, it's not the only healthy food in the world. You'd never know that by the way you have to be bombarded by people saying how healthy it is every time you say you hate the stuff. Just take nattokinase. Many non-Japanese spend all day forcing themselves to say natto tastes great when they know they are not telling the truth and would have never eaten the stuff if not for coming to Japan and having it practically forced into them.

-4 ( +2 / -6 )

Natto is fantastic, I usually put okra and Kimchi on it, great stuff.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

Sure stinks but is great for you, no doubt.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

I have little doubt Natto is healthy staple for a nation that a proven (globally) long life expectancy.

For the present I put my faith in Japan's wonderful seafood.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

People accept certain tastes and they reject others. It's an individual thing. I once witnessed a guy drink a whole bottle of tabasco. I thought that his palate must have been stone dead, but far from it. Listening to him describe tastes afterwards, I realised that his palate was very sensitive to spicy tastes and he could analyse and distinguish between jalapeno, habanero, scotch bonnet, etc. For me, these are all just "hot!" I prefer milder tastes. I can eat Tofu just by itself and distinguish between the types of tofu just by taste, Shima dofu, traditional kinu and momen dofu and so on. I've heard people say that tofu is tasteless.

For me, natto doesn't stink. It smells of natto. But then I like natto as I said. However, I can understand those who don't.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

I don't mind natto, but I don't find myself deliberately seeking it out either. I'd much rather have it on my rice than, say, mayonnaise, though I'd take fermented tofu (腐乳) over either of them.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

 I once witnessed a guy drink a whole bottle of tabasco

You and I must have met somewhere before because I have.

I realised that his palate was very sensitive to spicy tastes and he could analyse and distinguish between jalapeno, habanero, scotch bonnet, etc.

You're describing me!

3 ( +3 / -0 )

 Mizkan's "Natto Effect Intestinal Care"

Er, would that be a reference to sound effects, which are a well known by-product of consuming legumes?

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Natto is great.

As a Cornishman, replaces baked beans in my dietary regime.

I do break from unthinking tradition in adding ketchup,salad cream and popping it into my bread to add flavour,though.


0 ( +0 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites