While bacteria-fermented beans may sound unpleasant — and god knows their side effects are unpleasant — natto is a healthy Japanese delicacy for a good reason, says Timothy Mawn
IN SOME COUNTRIES they eat strange things: putrid shark flesh, throbbing cobra heart, farmed dog — the list goes on. In some countries they cannot fathom why other countries eat sweet red beans with lumps of fried pork, fried blood, fried white bread and eggs, probably fried, for breakfast. We are, as a globe, a confused tangle of opposites when it comes to what we deem fit for human consumption.
If you have never eaten, or even heard of, natto, and you consider yourself an adventurous foodie, then read on. If it is already part of your daily diet then you really should waste no time in reading this and get back to a lonely trawl of social networking sites as you won’t have any friends, for reasons I shall explain later.
It is important to point out that this is an homage to a food type that I love — it just won’t sound like it. Allow me to introduce to you a staple of the Japanese diet that divides tastebuds in Marmite-esque fashion.
Natto — pronounced natto! — is a term used for soya beans which are fermented with Bacillus subtilis, a collection of decomposing legumes packed with essential gut-loving bacteria, a superfood and a great source of probiotics.
Europeans have only recently latched on to the fashionable idea that bacteria-friendly foods are there to help us in a multitude of ways, however this is an almost ancient Asian practice. If bacteria are your best friends, then natto is your BFF. And trust me — after eating natto, you’ll need something to be your friend.
IN MY FIRST week in my current job, I decided to unleash this extreme food sport upon my new innocent and trusting young chefs ¬— a personal test if you will. Without exception, all of my guinea pigs rolled this around their mouths like a Yorkshire terrier eating a chewy toffee. (I have first-hand evidence of this practice, as a deceased relative of mine used to do this to his terrier quite frequently for both his, and anybody in the vicinity’s, amusement. Please don’t pass this on to the RSPCA as my family are actually nice people.)
Needless to say, those psychologically scarred chefs have never trusted me since, gallantly passing on the opportunity to eat staff food made by my own hand.
This ‘vegetable cheese’, as some describe it, is said to have been accidentally discovered in Japan and eaten over one thousand years ago. Its first commercial sale was carried out at a small railway station in Ibaraki prefecture in 1889 and in 1912 the Natto Manufacturers Association of Tokyo was set up.
Its nutritional value in those times could have not been fully known; it was only appreciated for its umami, savoury quality, and its capacity to be easily digested: it almost massages the gut.
Imagine, if you will, a group of samurai surrounding their shogun all sitting around a warm fire after a victoriously vicious battle and a hot-tub bath, chowing down celebratory bowls of rice topped with natto, to be followed by the campfire scene from the film Blazing Saddles (see video below). If you know this film then you may start to understand that there may be a price to pay for ultimate health.
Video above: The campfire scene from Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles
Today it is sold in hygienic 40g polystyrene packets, pre-steamed and impregnated with a safe probiotic, and most commonly frozen with the addition of a small sachet of soy and mustard for seasoning. Its original manifestation was boiled soya beans which were then wrapped up in rice reeds which contain a natural strain of B. subtilis and then left in a warm place to ferment.
Japan alone manufactureS 236,000 tonnes of natto. Divide that by 40g and you begin to have a measure of its importance to the daily menu in Japanese households.
Its modern appearance to a Westerner is of something silky, almost slimy, dare I say it phlegmy. It has the nose of a fresh coffee and a well-aged camembert smoothie with a nail varnish remover chaser. Yes, on first contact it is that pleasant, probably the same way that the uninitiated may feel about a white Alba truffle, only without the stringy, gag-like mouth-feel.
MY FIRST EXPERIENCE of this delicacy was when I was eating breakfast upon my first visit to Japan. My reaction then was comparable to the look of sheer disbelief that is traded between Japanese people when watching a foreigner eat this extreme food.
I have been quietly applauded by an elderly couple sitting next to me at a magnificent breakfast buffet early one morning in Hokkaido, my natto sat on a bed of rice with a bowl of miso soup (a breakfast of champions), theirs on rice, curried chicken and a fried egg, the most extreme of extreme breakfasts I have ever witnessed.
If you ever find yourself stuck in a lift, the first question upon any rational person’s lips to the others should be, Have you recently consumed natto? If the answer is yes and there are no visible signs of ventilation, then text your loved ones a final message and prepare to depart from this fragile mortal coil in the worst possible fashion.
For all of its comedic flaws (only to a gaijin, that is), it is bracketed as and medically proven to be a superfood. The medical benefits linked, but not yet proven, are: a reduced risk of cancer, prevention of hair loss, thrombosis and stroke through the thinning of blood, youthful radiant skin, prevention of obesity, a reduction to the affects of ageing, a lowering of cholesterol, improvement in bone strength and a capacity to watch Susan Boyle documentaries end to end for 24 hours. All remarkable claims I think you will agree.
I now cannot live without this savoury Japanese bean, and if I know that I shall be having it for supper, my day will be filled with happiness. To most, it is an acquired taste — to me, a rare treat, as too much of a good thing may end in a healthy yet bitter divorce.
All proceeds from this article will be equally divided between the Yorkshire Terrier Diabetes Association and the Natto Widows Foundation.