See them beans on the rice? That’s natto. If you’ve ever found yourself talking about Japanese food with someone from Japan, it’s probably safe to assume that they asked you if you’ve either heard of or tried natto. Natto holds this strange place in the pantheon of food in Japan. One might even suggest that, if you were in, say, New Orleans, a Cajun might ask you if you’ve ever had Boudin (they pronounce it, “Booo-dan,” with an extra emphasis on the “Booo” part)–blood sausage. In both cases, the speakers have this odd twinkle in their eyes when they say, “Boo-dan” or “Natto.” One might even go as far as to suggest that the twinkle has a perverse quality to it. All for good reason.
So what is natto? It is nothing more than soybeans fermented through exposure to Bacillus subtilis–a common bacteria found on rice straw. Natto fermentation is different from that of miso, which relies on Koji-kin fungus. However, like miso, natto is also jam-packed with probiotics. Unfortunately, unlike miso, the odor of natto has been compared to smelly socks. Then again, if you like gorgonzola cheese, that shouldn’t be a problem. It also is slimey, gooey, and sticky. When you stir it, gossamer-like threads form that can stretch over a foot in distance. Maybe not so good if you wear Armani and are adverse to bringing your bowl up to your chin. For more in-depth information (history, medical benefits, etc) on natto, consider going to Wikipedia, via this link: Natto.
So what’s so great about natto? Lots. I have a friend who gushes over it. She claims she can actually feel the probiotics kick into gear when she eats it. Entirely possible. Back in the days of my reckless youth, after a night of drinking and waking up with a raw stomach, I used to hit the store for a bottle of Odwalla Royal Papaya Ginseng smoothie. That would instantly bring my gut back to feeling normal. Too bad you can’t get it anymore. But, of natto, much has been said about how it helps prevent blood-clots, could be useful in preventing or treating diseases like Alzheimer’s. The list goes on. But that’s less of a concern for me. I’m more interested in turning natto into some quite palatable.
If you manage to find a grocery store that sells natto–I know of only two retailers in the greater Seattle area that carry it: Uwajimaya and Shoreline’s Central Market–you will find it in a refrigerated or freezer section of the store and packaged in a stack of styrofoam squares. I’m not so keen on the styrofoam scene, but that’s how it comes. Additionally, since Margaret says she’s sensitive to MSG, I have to carefully read the list of ingredients to see which doesn’t feature it in the “Flavor package.” Actually, as you will see, that is a moot point.
When you get home with your natto pack, you’ll typically find inside of the styrofoam box two tiny condiment packs of yellow mustard and some kind of soy sauce juice sitting on top of the square of paper that covers the beans. My preference is to throw these flavor packs away. Why? Well that’s where the “Up-Scale” part of this post comes in.
You see, I am very picky about my mustard. I dislike the kind of yellow mustard you find at most pubs, hot dog stands, burger joints, and the like. It’s the kind of yellow mustard I grew up with. The day I discovered Plochmann’s stone-ground, German mustard was like a revelation. I liked mustard before, but I really loved this stuff. As time went on, I tried Grey Poupon and even Guelden’s brown mustard before that. All wonderful, spicy mustards with tons of awesome flavor. After that, generic yellow mustard just couldn’t keep up. So now I throw away the yellow mustard I find with natto. As far as the second plastic bindle of soy, I’d rather stick with tamari. I like the subtle difference in flavor from regular soy. Tamari is made from only soy and not with wheat. Works for me. Actually, it makes a significant difference. Especially if you are gluten intolerant.
In preparing natto, obviously the most common way is to whisk the beans with the mustard and the soy sauce and use it to top-off a bowl of hot, freshly made Japanese rice. A no brainer. As the previous paragraph pointed out, choosing your own soy sauce and adding a spot of, say, Grey Poupon dijon, will make a difference–a surprising difference. The flavor of dijon is magical when it combines with the funky flavor of natto. Both have a umami quality about them, as well as the soy sauce. But there is something about the the tang of dijon that seems to work as a parallel layer or perhaps as a bridge to the taste of the natto. It somehow convinces the palate that smelly socks is not a part of the taste equation. I still can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s as if a mysterious harmony is achieved. But, wait! There’s more!
In the pantheon of Japanese cooking, there is another item that rivals natto for gooey viscosity. For those who live in fear–real fear–of food-borne illness, you best steer away from this one. We are talking about Egg and Rice. Umm… Let me try that again: Raw Egg and Freshly Steamed Rice. Yep. An uncooked egg scrambled with some soy sauce and dumped raw over hot rice. Mix all that together and the hot rice partially cooks the egg. Is it still raw? Enough that it would come with a health warning–like a Caesar Salad–if you were to have it at a restaurant. Mind you, I have my own chickens in my backyard, so I feel confident enough the birds are healthy and their eggs are very fresh. Salmonella poisoning? Hasn’t happened yet–even since the first time I tried this as a child. To be honest, I’ve had more gastro-intenstinal issues eating hamburgers than I’ve had with eating food that features raw eggs. Go figure.
So what’s the connection with Egg & Rice and natto? Take another look at the picture above. Yep, that’s natto with a blop of dijon mustard on top, all sitting on a hot bowl of Egg & Rice. Welcome to a Japanese breakfast. Yummers!