The Notorious Natto: My Personal Experience

The Notorious Natto / photo by Junanto

It’s been four months since I first came to Japan. I have tried many kinds of food and Japanese restaurants, but I never tried Natto. What’s strange is the fact that despite its popularity in Japan, I never once heard of Natto when I was in Jakarta. All we ever hear about Japanese foods are sushi, sashimi, tempura, shabu-shabu, and many kinds of rice cuisine. But not Natto.

For foreigner like me, natto is the most notorious food in Japan. It is a traditional Japanese food made from soybeans fermented with Bacillus subtilis (some kind of bacterium). So, naturally it is not a very “fresh” product. It is the texture that puts people off. The beans are awash in their own slime, so it is like eating chunky mucus. The smell is not so great either. Many find natto repulsive, foul, and repugnant. Yup, natto is so slimey, disgusting, and have a stingy rotten smell. The smell of natto, I guarantee will make you dizzy and wanted to throw up…. hehehe.

But, ….this is the most interesting thing, ….. Japanese people love natto very much. Natto is kind of national dishes in Japan. They eat natto, just like Indonesian eat tempe. I can’t think of one Japanese person I know who doesn’t regard Natto as the most delicious food in the world. Each time I asked a Japanese friend, it is proving that just how opposite things can be here in Japan.

Despite that horrible appearance of natto, last week I tried my first natto. It was also a discussion with Kaneko-san, that change my mind about natto. Kaneko san is a specialist in Japanese” Junk” Food. Her hobby is making experiments on Japanese “Junk” Food. She really enjoy eating natto, mixed with “nama tamago” (raw egg – yup a real raw egg), kimchi, green onion, and pour it over a bowl of hot rice, and also sometimes over spaghetti. Yaaayhoo, thinking about such kind of food has made you crazy. But Kaneko san guarantee that you will really … really … like it….. as she said in Japanese “Totemo oishi desu yo.. (very delicious !!)”.

So, I decided to eat Natto. Of course it would be a tough job. But I enjoy food challenging. I have tried silk worm (ponthegi) in Seoul, Vegemite in Australia, and Marmite in UK. This is not to mention some extreme foods in Indonesia, like “Fish Head Curry”, Thengkleng (part of Lamb Head Soup), Jeroan, and Mandi Kambing. So, why bother with natto.

First time I ate natto, I needed lots of soy sauce and rice to get the stinky smell down. I’m weaning myself off the condiments. I stirred natto, 40-50 times, with chopstick. This is interesting also, Natto seems to get “activated” when you stir it. What I mean by this is, when you stir natto, the slimy coating on the beans develops into stringy, stretchy, marshmallow-like strands that was so enormous stingy hahaha…

I ate one spoon of natto with rice. Kayla, who sat next to me, couldn’t stand the smell of natto. She just stood up and closed her nose :). But I keep on eating. Hmmm…hmmm…. The taste wasn’t bad – serious, it was delicious. It just tastes like beans. Well, I know it’s hard to like something that smells like stinky feet and has the same texture as jelly smothered in mucus. But seriously, it was delicious, just like Kaneko San said.

For me, Nattō is considered an acquired taste. You won’t enjoy it for the first time you see it, it needs acquirement. And the perceived flavor of nattō, can differ greatly between people. Some find it tastes very strong and cheesy and may use it in small amounts to flavor rice or noodles, while others find it tastes bland and unremarkable.

The most important thing about natto is, it is a healthy food, and these claims can be backed by medical research. As I read in literature, the pyrazine in natto can reduces the likelihood of blood clotting. This may help to avoid thrombosis, as for example in heart attacks, pulmonary embolism, or strokes.
Natto also good for dietary supplement. Nattō contains large amounts of vitamin K, which is involved in the formation of calcium-binding groups in proteins, assisting the formation of bone and preventing osteoporosis. Nattō contains many chemicals alleged to prevent cancer. And the most important thing for me is the recent studies that show nattō may have a cholesterol-lowering effect haaaa.

So, enjoy the smell and let’s try … Natto !!

Reposting from Facebook notes, Tokyo, April 2010

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