Natto is fermented soybeans, and it's been popular in Japan for over a thousand years. Ann Yonetani tells The Splendid Table's Von Diaz how it gets its "special sauce," and why it might be exactly the thing for a vegan looking for a pungent cheese alternative.
Von Diaz: I recently tried your natto, and I have to say it's a little hard to describe. How would you describe it?
Ann Yonetani: How would I describe it? I think it's delicious. But for those who've never had it before, natto is simply steamed whole soybeans that come with their own special sauce.
VD: What is that special sauce like?
AY: That special sauce, for lack of a better word, is kind of slimy, like the mucilage that you get from cooked okra. It's a cross between that and the gooey marshmallow strings you get from a Rice Krispie treat.
VD: That's pretty accurate from my remembrance. What about the texture?
AY: Again, it's a cross between those two things. I think for a lot of first-time eaters of natto, the texture is the thing that is the most surprising and perhaps polarizing.
VD: Texture is a big thing for a lot of eaters. How long has natto been around?
AY: It's quite an old food. It's been around for a least a millennium in Japan, possibly longer. I recently learned that it may even have older origins in China, like many cultural things in Japan do.
VD: How is it typically eaten?
AY: Typically, the Japanese would eat it for breakfast.
VD: Just on its own?
AY: No, it's usually mixed with rice and soy sauce or other condiments, sometimes chopped scallions or vegetables. Raw egg is another common Japanese addition.
I tell people who are not Japanese to think outside of the box and not feel that they need to eat it with rice. In Japan, everyone has a rice cooker full of rice that's always on. For people in America who may not have rice lying around, it's useful to think of natto as a stinky cheese in bean form. Really, that's what it is. It's like a vegan stinky cheese. It's the closest thing a vegan can eat to a really strong, washed-rind cheese like Époisses or a Taleggio or a Chaumes, something in that vein. If you like that kind of fermented food, then natto may be easy for you to like if you can get over the texture thing.
VD: How do you eat it at home?
AY: I put it on pasta, toast, and pizza. It's great with eggs of any kind.
VD: Scrambled in them or on them?
AY: Any way. It's great on deviled eggs; that's one of my favorites.
VD: So how is natto made?
AY: The process is pretty simple. I start with dried, GMO-free soybeans from a particular varietal that's special for making natto. The beans are simply washed and soaked to hydrate them and then steamed, so they're cooked when they're inoculated with Bacillus subtilis. Then they're fermented for just one day and aged for about a week or so to develop flavor and texture before it's ready to eat or sell. Like any simple task, to do it really well it's all in the details. There are a million little things that can make a difference in the quality of the final product.