For some eaters, natto belongs in the nasty bits category of vegetarian fare. Both beloved and reviled, the fermented soybeans are a staple in traditional Japanese cuisine. To make natto, soybeans are cooked for many hours, then inoculated with bacteria and left to ferment in a temperature-controlled fermentation room (about 100 to 120°F.) After a day or so, the soybeans are cooled to room temperature and placed in the refrigerator to mature for a few hours.
The finished natto are stored and sold in styrofoam containers, complete with little packets of soy sauce and hot mustard. To enjoy, you simply mix the natto with the mustard and soy sauce, and serve with rice.
Though a fresh packet of natto looks innocuous at first glance, a brief stirring brings out the strands of slimy, fermented goo that covers the soybeans. More so than its appearance, the smell of natto—like a cross between ammonia and rank Camembert cheese—may be off-putting to those without a love for funky tastes and smells.
But really, I've never understood the hullabaloo about natto. Many delicious items are just spoiled food in disguise: salami, cheese, yogurt, and so forth. When carefully controlled, taking a food item past its prime does wonders for flavor and texture, and natto is a great example of that. There's nothing better than a piping hot bowl of rice with a pile of slimy soybeans on top. Add a few pickles and a bowl of miso soup, and you've got a delicious peasant meal in ten minutes or less.
Natto, in fact, is an excellent addition to miso soup. Traditional recipes for natto miso soup call for rinsing the soybeans in cold water before adding them to the dashi, but I think that doing so defeats the purpose of putting natto in the soup. The slightly bitter tang of natto complements the savoriness of a brown miso and counters the sweetness of a lighter, sweeter miso such as Saikkyo.
Happily for natto lovers everywhere, the product is readily found in Japanese markets. Look for the stacks of little styrofoam boxes next to the tofu and konnyaku.
Natto Miso Soup
- 2 tablespoons brown aka miso
- 2 tablespoons sweet white miso, such as Saikkyo
- 2 cups dashi
- 2 heaping spoonfuls of natto, or to taste
- A handful of wakame seaweed
- 1/2 block of tofu, cubed (silken, medium, or firm, according to preference)
- Scallions to garnish
Bring the dashi to a simmer in a soup pot and place the spoonfuls of natto into the liquid. Simmer for two minutes.
Place the miso pastes into the pot and use the back of a spoon to dissolve the pastes into the dashi. Add the wakame and the tofu and simmer for 30 seconds longer.
Serve immediately. Garnish with scallions.