2006/11/02

Uh Oh, Natto!

There are many things I like about soy beans. As edamame they make a nice snack. Then there is tofu, and my favorite, "yuba", which is the film skimmed off the top of a vat of boiling soy juice. Yuba is prepared in many ways by restaurants in Tochigi Prefecture to our northwest, and in Kyoto where it plays an important role in Buddhist vegetarian fare. Toasted soy beans are fine, if dry and bland, and I also like to put boiled ones on my salad at lunch or dinner. I don't eat a lot of soy. As with many foods, one can over do it.

There is another food made from soy beans that is quite popular in Japan. It is called natto and is made by fermenting steamed soy beans with a certain bacteria found in rice straw. The old method was to store steamed beans in rice straw until they fremented (ie until they went bad). One sees souvenirs at tourist shops around here shaped like bundles of rice straw stuffed with soy beans.

It has been around for about two thousand years, and in my opinion tastes like it. It is gooey and stringy so people develop a technique which consists of making quick circular motions with the chop sticks to break the slimey strands while transporting it to the mouth - somewhat annoying to watch for the unitiated.

It is a very healthful food however and I am told by my friend Daien Soga, minister of the Hongwanji temple in Kahului, Maui, who loves the stuff, that it is an acquired taste*. The Moody Minstrel - fellow American expat who has lived in Japan for something like 17 or 18 years now -confirms this as he evidently acquired a taste for it himself. Ibaraki (our fair prefecture) is known for producing excellent natto. [* "acquired taste" is the gastronomical equivalent of saying your blind date "has a nice personality".]



For you folks who don't read the comments section, after my previous post about Wordsworth restaurant, Moody informed me that they offer "natto spaghetti". He also made a poem about it using the blogger comment verification code to letters to begin each line:

"Try the Natto"
- by the Moody Minstrel:

Try the natto, Panda-B,
For it is really quite a treat
Chock full of vitamins B and E
And there is not a speck of meat.
"How bad it smells!" say gaijin, true,
Yet cheese can oft be just as bad.
Zany, stringy, slimy goo;
Uncanny pleasure to be had!

Thank you Moody. I may not try the spaghetti but I promise to try natto again next time K brings some home.

15 comments:

Don Snabulus said...

I've given natto 2 chances and that's enough.

Pandabonium said...

Somehow it reminds me of the creepy science fiction story about kids growing mushrooms in the basement and when people eat them their mind is taken over by some alien being.

2 chances sounds very fair to me.

HillCountryGal said...

Never heard of it, but it sounds interesting.

Robin said...

Natto.. this is definitely one thing that I never really learn how to appreciate.

Like durian and blue goat chesse...

i keep wondering why people pay a premium for such delicacies.

YD said...

fermented soya?... uh... not too appealing to me. wonder whether i will "acquire" the taste of not.

but come to think of it, that's how our soya sauce is made too, and we like it. =_=!!

nzm said...

Count me out of this one!

But I do like the red bean dessert (the name escapes me) that I've tried on a couple of occasions.

The best was when our favourite sushi chef in San Francisco, Kazu-san, cooked it for us.

We emailed him to say that we were coming for dinner when we were in town, and he prepared it at home and brought it in for us to eat, as the restaurant didn't have it on the menu!

It takes about a day to prepare as the beans have to be slowly boiled.

j-apricot said...

When I was a child, my mother served Natto with sugar in it. I hated it.

But you know, it IS very healthy food. So I've given Natto several chances and it is OK now.

Pandabonium said...

"Interesting" is a good adjective, Hill Country Gal - as in "your recent move was interesting". ;^)

Me neither Robin, but then I've never tried durian.

YD - and wine and beer, let's not forget!

NZM - perhaps Azuki beans? We went to Kashima Jingu shrine last Friday and had "zenzai" - sweet azuki bean soup with rice dumplings. Yummy.

j-apricot - well, K brought some home today, so (dragnet intro: dum dah dump dum...) tonight is the night for me to give it another try.... if I never post again you'll know why.

The Moody Minstrel said...

It is said that natto was actually "invented" (read "accidentally discovered") by Buddhist monks in Mito, the capital city of Ibaraki, the prefecture where Panda-B and I both live. It is definitely an acquired taste even among Japanese, and it is generally assumed that foreigners and people from the Kansai region of Japan (Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Kobe) can't stomach it.

Actually, last weekend natto was served with our breakfast in Miyajima (Hiroshima), but never in Kyoto.

There are many ways to eat natto, but my favorites are either natto maki (rolled sushi with natto in it) or natto mixed with hot mustard, soy sauce, and a raw egg stirred into rice. It's a great quick-energy dish.

I suppose I was lucky in that my Japanese friends and Japanese teachers in college warned me a lot about natto, so that when I actually tried it it turned out to be not nearly as bad as I'd expected. That helped me acquire the taste. (Besides, my wife loves it, so I can't easily get away with not eating it...)

Thanks, Panda!

Reena said...

Sorry Panda but that dish does not look appetizing at all! :)
Having said that, here in India, a lot of people including me have soy in our diet quite frequently. We get soy flakes (which is used as a substitute for grated coconut), soy chunks (which tastes like pieces of beef when cooked), soy drinks etc etc. Its a great form of protein especially for the large population of vegetarians out here.

Pandabonium said...

MM - thanks for the additional info and "recipes".

Reena- I like soy products, and have it one form or another almost daily, but as with any food, moderation is called for. Probably not an issue in India or Japan, but people in the USA tend to do things to excess.

Happysurfer said...

We have something here quite similar to natto though it's dry and is called "tempeh". The beans are wrapped in leaves (though I am not sure what leaves) and are left to ferment. They are usually deep-fried and eaten as they are or are stir-fried with long beans. They go well with rice.

We also have something similar to yuba though some coagulant is added to make it more solid like jelly. This we normally take with sugar syrup added.

I agree, everything in moderation.

Pandabonium said...

Yes, Happy, I forgot that one. Tempeh is another good soy food. It is fermented using a special mold called rhizopus. Tempeh is also very healthdul, helping the immune system and is an excellent source of protein that contains all the amino acids. Tastes better than natto too. :P

Happysurfer said...

Pandabonium, I'm surprised you are familiar with tempeh. That is a Malay word, is it not? Wonderful!

Pandabonium said...

Happy - Tempeh is popular in health food stores and among vegetarians as a meat substitute in the USA. It came to Japan in the early part of the 20th century. From what I've read it originated in Indonesia about 400 years ago and the word origin is Javanese.