What are the stinkiest foods in the world?
Aim that question at Google and what you’ll get back is a pantheon of nose curling, face distorting stinkers: durian, stinky tofu, surströmming, century egg and limburger cheese. But at the very top of the list rests nattō, a fermented Japanese soybean of legendary smelliness.
You’re probably familiar with soybeans, or edamame, in their unfermented state—the cute green beans, three to a pod, boiled and salted; those perfectly mild and sweet-tasting appetizers or beer snacks served at your local sushi joint.
‘I loved it unreservedly, unconditionally from the first time. It was love at first sight. It must be genetic. My father is like this too.’
But add the bacteria bacillus subtilis to those cute ‘mames and what you get is something entirely different: the beans, out of their shell and fermented, clump together in a gooey, brown mass, waiting to assault your senses.
The process behind making nattō is fairly straightforward. First the beans are washed and soaked in water anywhere from twelve to twenty hours. This step increases their plumpness.
Next, the soybeans are steamed for several hours, then mixed with the bacillus subtilis bacteria.
The mixture is then set aside to ferment at a temperature of 40 °C. After about 24 hours, the nattō is cooled, then aged in a refrigerator for up to a week to allow the development of its characteristic stringiness.
So I guess, in addition to the smell, it’s the stringiness that many people can’t handle.
How to eat nattō
You open the Styrofoam lid with a pop or a crack. Then you take out two little seasoning packs—usually karashi (yellow mustard) and soy sauce, though there are many variations.
The beans, still hidden, not yet having unleashed their stench, are just waiting for you to peel back the slim piece of plastic separating you from them.
When you do, some of the stickiness will adhere to the plastic and you have to do a little spin move with your hand to trap the strands and break them.
Then, after you have added your seasoning packets to the nattō, with your chopsticks, you start mixing it with a twirling motion.
There are those who claim that there are an ideal number of rotations to achieve the perfect nattō gooeyness, but I’m not that picky.
I twirl until there is a foaming mass of nattō goodness in front of me—which is where a lot of people stop. They just can’t handle the sharp, ammonia-like smell.
For others just starting out, they have to take baby steps: nibbles, a bean here or there, before they can get comfortable eating nattō on a regular basis.
For me there was no acclimatization period; no ‘I’m learning to like it’ phase. I loved it unreservedly, unconditionally from the first time. It was love at first sight. It must be genetic. My father is like this too.
It doesn’t matter what our noses are telling us, once the nattō, or the century egg, or the stinky tofu hits our mouths, something else takes over and all of the complexities and nuances of the fermentation process are revealed to our tongues and taste buds, and all is forgiven.
Nattō for breakfast?
People sometimes ask me: do you have a recipe for nattō? Not really.
The basic ‘recipe’ is simple: eat it with rice. Many people will add a raw egg and cut-up scallions to give the dish added texture and flavor.
Nattō on toast for breakfast, or nattō temaki zushi at a sushi bar are also fairly common ways to eat it in Japan. I’ve also heard that it pops up sometimes in spaghetti.
And maybe for the timid, for those of you who just can’t get past the smell, you should start with it in okonomiyaki, which is sort of a savory Japanese pancake. At least there the beans would be hidden among other vegetables in a batter.
‘I guess, in addition to the smell, it’s the stringiness that many people can’t handle.’
Or, you could buy ‘stink-less’ nattō. Yes, that’s right, because in Japan you can buy just about anything. It’s called Niowanattō from the company Mizkan. I also found it at H-mart in the U.S, so it is available internationally too.
So, what else is there to love about nattō? It’s healthy!
While it does lose some vitamins and minerals in the fermentation process (most notably Vitamin A) the calorie content is lower than that of raw soybeans. Additionally, nattō doesn’t have the high sodium content of other soy products such as miso.
Nattō contains no cholesterol and has a bad-ass collection of essential vitamins and minerals: iron, calcium, magnesium, protein, potassium, vitamins C, B6, and K.
So eat your nattō! It’s good for you—even if it does stink.
Have you tried nattō? What was your first reaction? Share your experience with #momentumtravel.