Natto from Nippan Daido
Photos by J.C. Reid
Natto is a traditional Japanese dish made of fermented soy beans. It is often eaten for breakfast as a topping on rice, and sometimes includes additional ingredients such as soy sauce, mustard, scallions or eggs. It is also known as one of the most disgusting foods in the world.
Of course, I had to try it. Natto isn't widely available in Houston, so I went to the source of all things related to Japanese food in Houston -- the wonderful Nippan Daido Japanese market at Westheimer and Wilcrest. Nippan Daido has two freezer cases full of colorfully wrapped natto packages.
There are many varieties of natto. The most common contains the natto beans and two plastic pouches filled with soy sauce (shoyu) and mustard (karashi). Another kind contains radish (daikon) sauce. The Hokkaido version apparently contains sugar. At first, a stocker at Nippan Daido was perplexed by a gaijin asking about natto, but he eventually explained that the variety you consume depends on personal preference, family tradition and geography.
I purchased a generic version of natto with soy sauce and mustard. After thawing it overnight in the refrigerator, I opened a container for breakfast and was hit with an aroma reminiscent of formaldehyde. The smell is often compared to dirty gym socks. Not exactly appetizing. The texture was sticky, snotty and stringy. The taste was a provocative combination of ammonia and nuttiness. I've read that some people find it similar in taste, smell and texture to a certain male bodily fluid. In any case, I found "raw" natto to be quite distasteful.
Which is where the other ingredients came in. Sure, there are connoisseurs who will eat natto straight up without any accompaniments. But to make it more palatable to general audiences, many additional ingredients can be mixed in. In my case, just adding the soy sauce and mustard cut the ammonia flavor. And vigorous stirring with chopsticks softened the snotty texture into a more acceptable creamy mouthfeel.
You can also serve natto over a bed of rice to further dilute the pungent flavor, and add some fresh chopped scallions. After some experimentation, complex flavor profiles start to develop and you begin to understand why natto is considered a true delicacy.
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