Every country has a local dish that visitors find a challenge to eat the first time they try it. In Japan, natto is a popular breakfast dish that has to be one of the most divisive foods on offer. It’s a dish made from soybeans that are fermented in a process that uses a bacteria, Bacillus subtilis. The beans are then aged for a week, resulting in a very unique dish. So are you wanting to know what natto tastes like? We’ll take a close look at its flavor, texture, aroma, and much more. Let’s dive in!
What does natto taste like?
Natto has a mild fermented flavor with a slightly bitter, earthy undertone that some describe as similar to aged cheese. However, it is not the flavor that many people find off-putting, it’s the aroma.
Natto has a pungent acrid smell that is similar to old socks or smelly cheese. The bacteria that produce this smell, are similar to those that are used to make many smelly cheeses, which is why their smell is comparable.
If you can’t tolerate the aroma of Munster or bleu cheese then this Japanese dish will cause problems for you.
The texture of natto will also test a newcomer to their limits, thanks to its sticky, gooey nature. If you eat the dish with larger soybeans, they are less sticky and easier to eat. The option that uses crushed soybeans (hikiwari) is a much stickier version with more flavor and an extra powerful aroma.
How to eat natto
Locals in Japan usually eat natto for breakfast or lunch, and it is traditionally served with hot rice, vegetables, green onions, and condiments like karashi mustard or soy sauce (tare). If you buy a pack in Japan it will include some extras condiments, like a sushi pack does. These may include ginger, wasabi, or a sauce.
There are many other useful sides that can be served with natto including:
- fried chicken (kara-age)
- okra (ladies’ finger)
- raw egg
- bonito flakes
- cold tofu (hiyayakko)
Like many dishes, it will vary depending on which part of Japan you are situated in. In Fukushima, they eat natto with pickled cabbage to increase the bitter flavor in their meal. Locals in Hokkaido add sugar to their natto which is arguably an acquired taste.
Natto doesn’t have to be the star of the dish, eaten as the main component. Instead, it also works as a perfect accompaniment to other classic Japanese dishes like Japanese curry, tempura, or okonomiyaki (Japanese style pancakes).
Does tempeh taste like natto?
Although tempeh and natto are both fermented foods, tempeh has a nutty, mushroom-like taste and is packed with umami flavor; natto has a mild flavor, but a more pungent aroma and a slimier, gooier texture.
To learn more, check out our article on tempeh substitutes.
Natto vs Miso
Natto and miso are both made from soybeans, but they are very different ingredients. Natto is a fermented soybean dish, often served for breakfast, while miso is a flavor-enhancing powder or paste used for soup and adding umami flavor to many recipes.
Natto’s Health Benefits
Natto is packed with nutritional goodness and many locals consider it to be a superfood, packed with protein and probiotics. It is high in vitamins B, C, and K, along with phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, iron, and calcium. Natto also has no cholesterol and is low in calories and sugar. Essentially, natto is a guilt-free meal, with many useful benefits to your health.
For those that have soy allergies, eating natto may still be an option as the proteins are broken down during the fermentation process. We recommend checking with a dietician to see if this food is suitable for your diet.
Tips and facts
- Natto’s neutral flavor means it pairs well with other strong-flavored ingredients like garlic or ginger.
- Add a splash of sesame oil to natto before eating to help overwhelm the acrid smell of the dish.
- Stirring natto for longer will result in a gooier, slimy texture; so if it’s your first time eating it, keep the stirring to a minimum.
- The dish is most popular in the eastern regions of Japan such as Hokkaido, Kanto, and Tohoku. Source.
- Natto can improve the elasticity of the skin and is used by some manufacturers of skin moisturizer.
- The origin of natto is unclear but is thought to have been invented around 1051-1083 in Japan.
How to store natto
If you’ve just made (or purchased) a batch of freshly-made natto, you may be wondering how to store it? We recommend storing natto in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer. It can be kept in the fridge for up to 3 months or frozen for 12 months. Once thawed, eat within 7 days.
If you’re a fussy eater then natto will be a “tough initiation”. Although its flavor is quite mild, the aroma is overwhelming. Combine that with a unique, gooey texture and many find it unpalatable. But don’t let that stop you trying it. Those that try it more than once usually acquire a taste for it and grow to love it. Eating natto is an excellent way to increase your intake of vitamins and minerals as well as a healthy dose of probiotics.
If you’re interested in trying natto then your best option is to visit an authentic Japanese restaurant to get the full experience. It’s also commonly available online or at Asian grocers in the United States and many other Western countries.
There are some unique foods on our planet. What has been the most challenging food you have ever eaten? Let us know in the comments below.