Natto! Or not
A surprising cross-section of isle residents enjoy the smelly, fermented bean dish
TO SAY that natto gets no respect may be an understatement as gross as the dish itself. Gaijin (foreigners) are so predictably repulsed by the Japanese fermented soybeans that they are called upon to declare a preference soon after landing at Narita International.
"Do you like natto?" comes the textbook query -- followed by giggles of delight as foreigners break out in a sweat at the memory of their first encounter.
Granted, natto looks suspect as soon as you open the pressed-foam clamshell -- as if covered in some filmy coating. To eat, rapidly mix the beans for about 30 seconds, until they develop a stringy, snotty, bubbling froth and a pungent odor that will send non-initiates fleeing.
Appearances aside, the bean itself tastes surprisingly mild -- some call the taste "woodsy" -- usually eaten on hot white rice, mixed with the Japanese mustard and "tare" sauce included in most packages, sprinkled with soy sauce and green onions.
Online travel blogs offer rich exclamations of culinary culture shock at being served this traditional breakfast food at Japanese inns. One writer concluded the beans are "evil," another that they have "the complex yet playful aroma of a Dumpster in July."
SAY what you will, natto lovers of all ethnic persuasions relish the beans with the same intensity as those who question whether they can truly be called food. In fact, as culinary exoticism grows increasingly fashionable, learning to love natto has become a formidable hurdle to epicurean hipness -- especially in New York City, apparently, where the Village Voice notes that foodies will order the dish "simply to prove that they're 'down.' " The Natto Project, a blog by a pair of Greenwich Village trendies, documents their (successful) attempt to acquire the taste by force-feeding it to themselves every day.
Natto is also gaining popularity in Japan, where consumption increased eightfold from 1970 to 1990. One reason is its purported health benefits, aggressively marketed by natto makers. These include not only impressive amounts of protein, fiber, calcium, potassium, and vitamins B2 and K, but most importantly an enzyme (nattokinase) that is believed to reduce blood clotting. Research also has found cancer-preventing, cholesterol-lowering, bone-building and antibiotic effects, plus aids to digestion and weight loss.
IN HAWAII, natto is eaten by a surprising cross-section of the population, young and old. Introduced by Japanese immigrants, it has been passed down in local families and, like other foods disgusting to outsiders, seized on as ethnic soul food by otherwise assimilated AJA youth.
"I love to eat it on chazuke," says Wayne Hirabayashi, executive chef at the Kahala Resort. "Especially after a hard day's work, it just soothes my stomach, my soul. It just makes me feel good inside. My mom always used to make it."
After a day of sophisticated food slinging, Hirabayashi longs for "simple, basic. ... I eat it with canned salmon, real local. Rice and tea, furikake, nori, extra shoyu, drown it in tea. If you get leftover ahi, mix that in there too -- lot of green onions.
"Ho, I'm getting hungry already!"
RANDAL ISHIZU, executive chef at Ihilani Resort and Spa, loves the stuff, but for his dining rooms, "it's too funky. People freak out with it being so stringy, and they don't care for the smell. I open it and my kids run away."
The fearlessly experimental Alan Wong has tried the beans in marinade, in barbecue sauce, in vinaigrette, on filet mignon, even as a glaze for foie gras. But he admits this is mostly for kicks, because he likes natto -- it's never a big seller.
"You have to do something with it. You have to do a LOT with it," he laughs.
Wong says he learned from his restaurant in Japan that Japanese foods eaten at home are not much appreciated when people dine out. That may be why "family" restaurants in Hawaii report success with their natto creations -- and it does move moderately well at sushi bars, wrapped in temaki.
ANGELO PIETRO'S has for at least a decade offered a natto spaghetti. "Some people come in just to order that," says manager Sean Yokotaki. "If we took it off the menu, they'd be upset."
He won't divulge the recipe, but says it basically consists of natto mixed with raw egg, plus soy sauce and chopped green onion over hot buttered spaghetti.
Tom Jones, sushi chef and owner of the Gyotaku restaurants, came up with a nacho-like appetizer, Nattochos, that combines several tried-and-true natto partners: grated daikon, yamaimo (a mountain yam that itself turns gooey when grated), chopped green onion, sliced nori, sesame seeds, ahi limu poke, diced avocado -- all piled on fried wonton chips. He says it's even better mixed with raw egg, though that's too risky for the restaurant.
THERE ARE basically two ways to prepare natto: Either disguise the smell and texture so newbies can learn to appreciate the nutty taste of the beans themselves, or accentuate those unique textural qualities so beloved by natto connoisseurs.
The latter style would include natto on hot rice, in temaki or paired with okra, yamaimo, warabi, raw egg or cheese to make it even more gooey. When beaten into eggs and cooked in an omelet, natto all but loses its ambrosial slime.
The same is true with natto buried in Japanese curries, in miso soup, spring rolls or fried rice: The cooking or strong flavors of the companion foods tend to neutralize the qualities that make natto, like poi, an ethnic comfort food.
Courtesy Paul Uyehara, Aloha Tofu
1 tablespoon dashi-no-moto (Japanese fish stock)
3/4 cup warm water
12 ounces dry spaghetti
2 tablespoons cooking oil
1 3-ounce package natto, finely chopped
3 tablespoons ume paste (from pitted umeboshi, crushed)
1-1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
» Optional toppings:
Nori, sliced into strips
Katsuobushi (bonito flakes)
Sliced green onions
Dissolve dashi in warm water and set aside.
Half-cook spaghetti. Drain and set aside.
Heat oil in frying pan over high heat. Add natto and ume paste and cook 30 seconds. Add dashi mix and spaghetti and cook, stirring, until liquid is absorbed and spaghetti is tender. Turn off heat; add soy sauce. Serve with toppings, as desired. Serves 3.
Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving: 550 calories, 14 g total fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, no cholesterol, greater than 2,000 mg sodium, 86 g carbohydrate, 6 g fiber, 3 g sugar, 20 g protein.
Broiled Natto Camembert
Dancyu magazine, Tokyo
1 1.75-ounce package natto
1 teaspoon red miso
1/2 teaspoon sake
1/2 teaspoon mirin
8-ounce package Camembert or Brie cheese
1 to 2 green onions, chopped, green part only
Black sesame seeds
Stir natto until sticky; add miso, sake and mirin.
Slice top off cheese. Pile natto mixture over cheese and broil 2 to 3 minutes, watching to make sure it doesn't burn.
Sprinkle with scallions and sesame seeds. Serve with a toasted baguette. Serves 2 to 3.
Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving (based on a 12-ounce baguette): 550 calories, 21 g total fat, 12 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, greater than 1,200 mg sodium, 60 g carbohydrate, 3 g fiber, 3 g sugar, 28 g protein.
Kimchee Natto Soup
Dancyu magazine, Tokyo
Large handful of soybean sprouts
3/4 to 1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon (powdered) chuka noodle soup base
Half a tub of tofu (6 to 7 ounces), cut in bite-size pieces
Half bunch of garlic chives, sliced diagonally
1/2 cup kim chee, sliced diagonally
Half stalk Tokyo negi (see notes), sliced diagonally
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 individual (1.75 oz) package natto
Soy sauce, sake, sugar, to taste
Heat soy sprouts, water and soup base in a pot, covered, at medium-high until nearly boiling. Add tofu, chives, kim chee and Tokyo negi; cook until heated through.
Add sesame oil and natto; bring to gentle boil. Turn off heat and add soy sauce, sake and sugar to taste. Serves 2.
Nutritional information unavailable.
Notes: Chuka soup base and the other specialty ingredients in this recipe are available at Asian markets such as Don Quijote and Marukai; may substitute a Japanese noodle soup broth and modify the amount of water used. Tokyo negi is a large green onion; may substitute regular green onion.
Choose your weapon
Natto gourmets will certainly take issue, but most of us taste little difference between one brand and another, as the beans are usually eaten with soy sauce, mustard (karashi) and tare sauce.
Preferences come in the texture and size of the beans, and packaging with special condiments such as shiso, nori or katsuobushi (bonito flakes).
Of greatest interest to natto newcomers, perhaps, are brands that claim to be "less smelly" (nioi hikaeme).
Some brands advertise that their beans were organically grown. Most use "small" beans, but some claim "very small" beans, or "the tiniest" beans.
Others come chopped up (hikiwari) -- good for initiates.
Natto haters often express surprise that the beans can go bad, but spots of white mold are certainly a bad sign. Refrigerated natto, whether fresh or defrosted, should be consumed within a few weeks, just like yogurt.
Keiko Ohnuma, Star-Bulletin
Nutritional analyses by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.