Natto May Be the Fermented Soybean Japanese Breakfast of Your Dreams

This delicacy inspires intense love, as well as hate. We suggest trying it for yourself.

Natto, Fermented Soybean Japanese
Photo: © IMAGEMORE Co.,Ltd./Getty Images

It may not look pretty, but natto (pictured above) is a culinary staple in eastern Japan. It's so popular, in fact, that many Japanese schoolchildren eat the pungent fermented delicacy during their snack breaks. But don't think all of the locals have hopped on the natto bandwagon. Like cilantro or anchovies, natto's taste can be quite polarizing, especially by those who are used to eating a morning bagel or a bowl of Raisin Bran.

In his 2002 travelogue A Cook's Tour, Anthony Bourdain proclaims natto to be "the Vegemite of Japan," and relates his visceral reaction to encountering it in overwrought detail. But before you allow an outspoken media personality to form an opinion for you, here's what you need to know:

What is Natto?

Natto is made by inoculating cooked soybeans with a special starter culture (Bacillus subtilis var. natto) and fermenting them at an elevated temperature for the better part of a day. The soybeans turn brown and develop a mucilaginous coating that forms thin strings when the beans are pulled apart. Unlike other fermented products, natto is unique in that it does not turn sour. Natto is known for its pungent smell, distinctive flavor, and slimy texture. Typically served with rice and garnished with soy sauce, karashi mustard, and green onion, natto is a common breakfast staple in many parts of Japan.

What Does Natto Taste Like?

It varies by the batch and fermentation process, but the taste has been compared to salty cottage cheese, foie gras, or old Brie. Some have even described natto's flavor as reminiscent of bacon, but earthier. Comparisons aside, the majority of natto enthusiasts can't seem to put their finger on a precise flavor. The aroma is what typically turns people off, as it has a slightly ammoniated smell.

Where to Find Natto

Natto can be found at natural foods grocery stores as well as specialty stores that carry Japanese foods. Though you may find it in refrigerated cases, natto is also commonly stored in the frozen section. If you cannot find it locally, you can get fresh natto delivered from online retailers. Or, for extra credit, you can try making it yourself: as fermentation projects go, natto does not take very long and the starter culture is easy to find online.

How to Eat Natto

Serve with white short-grain rice and garnish with strong mustard, soy sauce, and thinly sliced or minced green onion. Many enthusiasts like to stir the beans vigorously before eating, which incorporates air and thickens the natto.

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