Taste Test: Natto

2575452959_3e70c24168_b.jpg In Japan, we eat soy all the time. For breakfast we have rice with natto and miso soup with tofu; for dinner we pop edamame into our mouths in between chopsticks-full of vegetables sauteed in soy sauce. I always assumed it was good for you, until I came to California and my health-conscious American friend told me that soy was actually really bad for you. So which is it?

3129760879_e5c9fcc492.jpgNatto spaghetti Ingredients: packet of natto, soy sauce, butter, chopped scallions, nori seaweed, spaghetti Boil the spaghetti in a pot. Open the natto packet and mix the ingredients (it usually comes with some mustard and a soy-based sauce) together. Once the spaghetti is cooked and drained, toss it in butter and soy sauce, then place the natto, scallions, and seaweed on top.

Here's what we know about soy: unprocessed, it's a great source of digestible protein and has tons of vitamin B, calcium, and folate — all things that are good for you. It also contains isoflavones, and here's where things get tricky. Some studies prove that isoflavones are beneficial, while others have shown that it promotes breast and prostate cancer. Soy has also been called out as an agent of brain cell aging and thyroid dysfunction, too. In her recent book The Jungle Effect, San Francisco-based physician Daphne Miller — who studied low cancer rates in Okinawa extensively — writes:
While Okinawans take in over 80 percent of their soy in a relatively unprocessed form as tofu, edamame, soy flour, soy milk, or miso, people in the United States eat a similiar percentage of their soy in a processed form. Our soy foods are heated, mashed, and denatured to create a vast array of substances ranging from Tofurky to fillers for tuna fish to ice-cream sandwiches... while whole foods offer valuable protection, concentrated or denatured derivatives of these foods are having the opposite effect.
The bottom line, at least for now, seems to be that good soy prevent cancer and bad soy might promote cancer. Good soy = tofu, soy sauce, miso, natto, edamame. Bad soy = soy protein powder, energy bars made with soy, fake hot dogs, tofurky. A lot of Western people think natto — fermented soy bean — is gross because of it's gooey texture and stinky smell, but it's one of my favorite things to eat for breakfast. It's filled with protein and great for a post-workout snack, too. If you're still iffy about it, why not combine the foreign with the familiar and cook some natto spaghetti? The slippery texture of the pasta cuts the gooeyness a little, and in my opinion this is a gentle way to ease natto into your culinary life. Every installment of Taste Test will explore recipes, the science, and some history behind a specific food item.

Images via Jasja Dekker's Flickr and Gaku's Flickr


  1. Thanks Lisa! My family has been looking for a way to introduce more soy into our diet but we ran into mixed messages concerning it’s healthiness.

  2. I visited Japan for a month as a teenager, and let me tell you, natto was the most foul-smelling food I could imagine. I understand you grew up on it, but seriously, that stuff was rank.

    I’d encourage Americans to try smelling some sometime just to expand your realm of what food might smell like.

    But I’m not eating it.

  3. Yeah, I always wondered about people claiming to me that soy was awful and gave boys birth defects, etc. A billion Chinese can’t be *so* wrong. (My family is Chinese, so we consume tofu, soy sauce, all the time).

    I don’t think I’ve eaten a single of those fakey soy products in my life — definitely not tofu dogs or tofurkey — but maybe I’m just oblivious. Is soy protein powder used to spike protein levels in other products?

  4. All I can think of is the episode of “Iron Chef” when natto was the secret ingredient. When Morimoto pulled up a glob of natto, gluey strings dangling from the beans, even he looked grossed out.

  5. I love natto! I lived in Japan and loved eating it with the wonderfully slimy yama imo (mountain potatoe). I love natto as a snack, with spaghetti, natto sushi, on rice, with egg, etc. My only problem with it here in Canada is the nefarious packaging it comes in and of course the scarcity of it. I noticed that tempeh is not in your list of soy favorites! Dang! now I have to stop eating those awesome soy links and italian sausages :(

    1. …which is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, BTW!! Thanks for posting it – I would have, but you beat me to it.

  6. Yeah, the contradictory soy studies sure are perplexing. The processing explanation makes sense though. I’m heavily soy intolerant- I have bad reactions to roasted soy beans, soy milk and tofu ‘fake meat’- but I can drink miso soup (I love it!!) by the gallon and be fine. Maybe the fermentation helps as well?

    I might give natto a try some day… Couldn’t you have picked a more appetizing picture? ;)

  7. One way to cut down on the slimy/gooiness of natto is to rinse them. The gooiness doesn’t really go away, but it does cut it down dramatically. Mix in some soy sauce, maybe some spicy mustard, and eat with rice.

    A good introduction to natto might be natto sushi; it’s one of my faves. (Then again, I grew up eating natto, so YMMV)

  8. As much as I can appreciate the sentiment of eating more natural foods, I think there’s a danger to this idea that “asian foods = better.” Japan and China both have a lot of processed foods, and tofu isn’t exactly a food that generally comes straight out of the ground, especially the way most people eat it as a packaged good. Even making it yourself requires “processing” though obviously you can keep the preservatives and other ingredients to a minumum. It’s also interesting to note that if the above figures about consumption of “processed” soy are correct, even Okinawans eat almost as much as Americans since the Japanese eat three times as much soy as we do in the United States (per capita). And before we all go wolfing down gooey fermented soy, perhaps we should look at other statistics – for instance, Japan has one of the highest rates of stomach cancer. I’d also point out that there may be genetic differences that make eating a lot of one thing okay for some, but not for others.

    I think that any obsession with one food is bound to be detrimental. Our current food culture inclines us to go after particular ingredients or compounds in particular foods, and this kind of promotion of one particular food contributes to that kind of thinking.

  9. The history of soy is fascinating. It was traditionally used in China as a means to preserve soil and fix nutrients during crop rotation. In 2853 BC Emperor Shennong declared it one of the five sacred crops.

    It can also give little boys boobies.

  10. I picked up a taste for natto on my trip to Japan earlier this decade. I love it. I eat it all the time. It’s an acquired taste, a very strong pungent taste. Half the people in Japan don’t even like it. I always get strange looks when I order it in a restaurant, and frequently am asked if I know what it is and I’m sure I want it!

  11. Man, I think that it is wrong headed to say that one food is particularly good for you or bad for you. Until people look at diet and lifestyle holistically there are always going to be conflicting studies. Food is just part of a system. Humans can be ‘healthy’ on differnt types of diets.

  12. One thing to note, however, is that copious amounts of miso and shoyu are pretty high in sodium. Back when the typical Japanese lifestyle was less sedentary, it wasn’t as much of a problem. But with today’s sarariman culture, it leads to more hypertension and high blood pressure.

    In my 4 months in Japan, I’ve started to like natto. Absolutely hated it before, but I’ve learned to like it out of necessity. It’s cheap, and good for you! I like to chop up a little kimchee into it to mask some of the natto flavor, which I’m still becoming accustomed to. Or maybe a little extra karashi.

  13. Natto is a fascinating food with a cool history going back to Edo times when it was food for Samurai (which could go far to explain the nasty temperment of some of the legendary warriors – as stated upthread, the stuff is wholly foul smelling). It is full of really awesome properties, however.

    Long known for cardiovascular health by way of moderate blood-thinning, the proteolytic enzymes in natto (nattokinase) have been shown to reduce and remove blood clots and deep tissue thrombosis in place. This is significant as it does not dislodge the clot causing risk for stroke. The man responsible for discovering and isolating nattokinase, Dr.Hiroyuki Sumi, is said to have dropped a bit of the natto he was enjoying for lunch into a culture dish growing a thrombosis clot. He noticed the clot clearing around the area of the natto drop and went on to isolate the enzyme. IANA scientist, but that is the way I heard it from Dr. Sumi in a talk he gave to an enzyme supplement manufacturer that I was affiliated with a number of years ago.

    I have had natto over rice with sashimi maguro tuna in a sushi bar in Seattle. Smelly, but overall tasty.
    sorry for the long comment, but natto is neato ;-P

  14. The place where I go to eat Natto usually serves it with a bit of soy sauce (yes, I know, overkill), chives, and a raw quail egg on top, which you mix together before eating. It is absolutely delicious.

  15. “Good soy = tofu, soy sauce, miso, natto, edamame. Bad soy = soy protein powder, energy bars made with soy, fake hot dogs, tofurky.”
    Processing of soy to tofu converts isoflavones to one form (beta-glucosides), processing of soy by fermentation to natto and miso OR BY COOKING AT HIGH HEAT creates a different one (aglucones). The aglucones are currently considered likely to have anticarcinogenic properties, in part because they are more bio-available. Tofu, on the other hand, is actually associated with an increase in breast cancer in some subpopulations.
    So good soy/bad soy is unlikely to fall along a traditional/technological divide.

    @#7 Weatherman: It looks like the high incidence of gastric cancer in Japan isn’t due to diet as was speculated, it actually is more associated with H. Pylori infection.

  16. Of course natto reduces disease. You put that stuff in your body and everything else is going to get as far away from it as possible. :D

  17. U.S. eaters should be aware that *almost all* soybeans grown in this country are genetically modified and no one–not the government, not Monsanto,not the farmers–knows the long term consequences of this.

    1. Excellent. I will be sure to eat more soy, as I think the long term benefits to GMO are better health and a severe lack of starvation for many people.

      Alas, I cannot stand Natto. Bummer.

  18. it’s also completely possible for something to be both good for you and bad for you. it might increase the risk of one thing and decrease the risk of another.

  19. A colleague who worked in Tokyo told me that some of his friends from France flew out to visit him, and he took them to a restaurant. When the time came to order, he ordered natto.

    The waiter leaned over and said quietly in Japanese: “Do you know what natto is, sir?”. His answer was: I know. They don’t.”

  20. i believe one of the concerns of soy is that in its UNfermented state it is high in phytic acid (also in most grains?) which binds to minerals and keeps the body from digesting them. alowishus is correct in that ancient asian cultures used soy as a rotational crop and only ate it in fermented form in small amounts. the US craze was due to the fact that american farmers found that soy grew really well here and could make a profitable crop.

  21. Well, I usually eat most Japanese foods. There’s really only two of them I just don’t like.

    The first, natto, is pretty typical. Not even all Japanese people like it. For me it’s just too much.

    The second, uni, is pretty atypical. Atypical enough that I keep telling myself it’s time to go back and just make myself eat enough uni that I begin to appreciate it.

    The number of folks who highly recommend really fresh sea-urchin, across many cultures, are why I think I’m going to have to try to make myself like it. How can I possibly critique a food I’m unfamiliar with because I avoid eating it enough to actually like it and have some familiarity with? I know, I’m not an actual food critic, so maybe I’m just being stupid. But there it is.

    Natto on the other hand I feel no compulsion to try to make myself like. It’s like durien. Some folks like it, many don’t, and although I am glad to have tried it I’m in the “No sir, didn’t like it” camp.

    -abs does try everything that passes his plate, including some things he wishes he hadn’t, but some times he just has to give up and admit he doesn’t like something, and natto is on that list

  22. I’d like to play my own advocate here because I genuinely do like Natto. Most people approach food with a desire to have a very pleasant eating experience – but there is a cost to that. You give up the adventure of taking some risks. If many people tell you Natto tastes awful, do you decide to never try it based on the collective wisdom of others? Or do you get curious and make it a point to try it sometime to get the full experience first hand? If you know a food is safe and even beneficial and a real bona fide cultural staple, I think it’s a great thing to eat something outside one’s comfort zone. You shouldn’t eat the same repertoire that is familiar to you. Try something new once in a while but do so with an open mind. There is a reason Natto is considered genuinely “good” in the minds of those who appreciate it. It is complex and challenging to the newcomer but each approach to it reveals something new and can even evolve from initial revulsion to appreciation. This is what makes eating fun as an experience apart from simply filling the stomach bag each time you sit down with silverware in hand.

  23. I tried natto twice when I was in Japan: once as sushi, which was bitter and sticky, and once as a natto-roll bought for 200 yen from a Lawson. As I sat on the steps of a public building trying to eat the intensely-flavored natto, creating mucus-like strands between my lips and the slippery roll in my hands, an old Japanese woman walked over and watched. She asked, “Natto? You American? You LIKE?” and cackled. No, I didn’t like. But I tried!

  24. My Dad is Japanese, and we had a tradition of nihon-shoku breakfasts on Saturday: miso-shiru (Mom would make fresh), rice with furi-kake or uni (yumm), and of course natto.

    One of the ways I knew my German-Egyptian wife was “the one” was that she loved natto from the first bite — extremely rare even to get a gaijin to taste it! Sharing a bowl of maguro-natto is one of our occasional treats.

    While my older daughter doesn’t really like it, I’m pleased to say that my younger one loves it! And the both adore miso-shiru for breakfast (I don’t make mine from scratch, but I do add small cubes of omochi and slices of kamaboko).

  25. THANK YOU so much for this info! I am REALLY happy to see edamame is listed as “good soy”. This makes a lot of sense. I’ve recently been researching my own dietary habits, trying to make better choices, etc., and edamame has become one of my favorite healthy foods. I was shocked a couple of days ago to see a post online where someone actually said that eating any kind of soy is “bad for everyone”. I figured that was way too sweeping and broad, and it made no sense to me at all – if it was bad for anyone to eat, how in the world could it have become a staple of Asian cooking? Anyhoo – thanks! This makes me feel better and gives me more stuff to look at.

    And I’m going to continue slamming those wonderful green beans of delishusness whenever the heck I want. w00t for edamame!

  26. Weatherman mentioned the high rate of stomach cancer in Japan. If memory serves, the Japanese population has a high rate of infection with Helicobacter pylori, a microbe which is known to cause ulcers and is associated with stomach cancer. Soy is not the problem.

  27. Hi Lisa!

    Natto is one of the vilest substances to have ever crossed my palate. I first tasted it when I was living in Japan.

    For objectivity’s sake, understand that I asked myself “what the hell is this disgusting stuff that’s making me gag” *before* I knew it was this mythically horrible stuff that everyone was warning about.

    I know it’s supposed to be really healthy, and I like other vile things like Marmite, but this natto stuff? no way!!

  28. I also fell in love with natto while in Japan. I consider it healthy and delicious and can get an organic natto at my local Japanese grocery store here in San Francisco. However, the problem is that a small portion of natto comes in a small polystyrene(mmmm-styrene touching my food) package that is not easily recyclable and ends up in the landfill.

  29. I had something called natto miso that was good, so I’m sure natto would be good, too. I’m a fan of fermented foods, like beer, yogurt, kefir and kim chee.

    I tend to stay clear of soy, though, because I fear if may make me grow boobs or make my willy shrink.

  30. You know how in the U.S. people talk about the evils of MSG? In China a chef friend pointed out to me that,

    1. they have no health problems related to MSG and,

    2. Americans often overheat MSG which is something the Chinese think IS unhealthy.

    MSG should not be cooked at a high temperature, rather it should be added later in the process when the food is not “too hot” (though I don’t know what the temp cutoff is). Basically, it’s that we are doing it wrong, not the MSG is, per se, bad for you.

  31. I’m sure the issue with good/bad soy is just like other natural products that get processed. In South America coca leaves are chewed as a mild stimulant, but it’s when it is concentrated to make cocaine that it’s a problem

  32. I ate it a couple times every month when I lived in Japan. Would throw an egg and soy sauce and some ground pepper on top and it was pretty good.

    One word of caution though is that the smell seeps out of your skin, and you can smell it on people (like garlic) pretty easily. So avoid it on date night. It can cause some break-ups.

  33. Mmm…natto. I can’t eat it in front of my wife (she thinks the appearance and smell are nauseating) but it makes a great breakfast or lunch.

    Let one of the little freezer packs come up to room temperature with the pack open so it can breathe. If you’re in a hurry, you can nudge it along VERY gently with a microwave at 10-20% power for no more than 20-30 seconds at a go…you don’t want to kill the bacteria.

    When it’s thawed and has sat for a bit, stir with a pair of chopsticks ’til it’s nice and neba-neba…a coagulated mass of the slimy, sticky strings. Put it in a bowl with a bit of warm rice (not too much, or you lose the natto-ness) and stir again. Crack a raw egg over it and mix in, not too vigorously. Top with a bit of toasted sesame oil, sesame seeds, shoyu, and a chopped green onion. Maybe add up to a teaspoon of hot Chinese mustard if you’re in the mood.

    I’ve been saving the little styrofoam packs against the time when I try making homemade natto…you can use store-bought as a starter. They’ll be great for freezing single-serving portions.

  34. I was dining with a friend in the mostly deserted sushi bar in the Biltmore Hotel downtown, and the chef asked us if we wanted to try something new.

    Everything he had made until then was first rate, so we both nodded enthusiastically. He made us maki with natto, and although my nose first gave me pause, as soon as I tasted it, in combination with the nori and crunchy vegetables, I was instantly a fan.

  35. I too am a fan of natto. It’s a pretty cheap Japanese food item in most shops compared to other things like furikake, umeboshi and (fresh) tofu.

    For anyone wanting an idea of what natto is like, I would describe it as smelling of puke and having the consistency of chopped raw steak covered in a bacterial coating that is extremely slimy and somewhat resistant to being washed off by water.

    But in a good way.

    The flavour, on the other hand, is wonderful. Something close to nutty, with a hint of truffle somewhere I would say.

  36. I think an old conversation between three of my friends describes natto to a tee:

    K: “I’ve heard natto is very healthy. Not sure about the taste, though.”
    E: “It tastes like vomit.”
    P: “No no, it *smells* like vomit. It tastes like sticky wood.”

    I was inclined to agree during my natto experience, especially since my girlfriend at the time had opted for the “American” breakfast and was tearing into a ham steak and home fries right next to me.

  37. Gochisosama deshita! *urp* Thanks for the natto spaghetti recipe, I _love_ natto and this is a great variation on a theme. Wonderful post, gokurosama!

  38. Many brands of natto have MSG, so if you are really thinking about the health benefits, look for the kind that don’t have it. Also, another healthy food from Japan is umeboshi, salty pickled plums. Good for your stomach! However, many umeboshi also have MSG and food coloring, so beware. The “Eden” brand of umeboshi found in stores like Whole Foods are very good.

  39. Okay, here’s my take on natto:

    1) Buy organic. It has a much milder (less bitter) taste, and never smells so bad.

    2) It is concentrated awesome. I hated it forever, but then my wife, who also didn’t like it, got a bunch for free and I felt obliged to eat it (we gave a lot away). The more I had it, the more I acquired the taste. Lisa’s right: this stuff is the breakfast of champions. Put it on a bowl of rice with a raw egg (salmonella works its way in through the shell–very fresh eggs are totally safe) and you will be going strong until 1:30.

    3) I think a lot of the natto-hate is due not to the taste, texture, or even smell (come on, guys, we eat smellier cheeses). It’s due to the “ohhh, foreigners cannot eat our unique rotten soy beans” image that is willingly cultivated by Japanese exclusionists. It is the go-to food that shows the differences in tastes, but I am thoroughly unconvinced that taste differences really exist between cultures. They are wholly personal. But if you tell a bunch of people “there’s this really gross stuff called natto,” then their minds are set to “gross.” It’s actually not gross at all–it’s just hard to eat.

    4) I eat it with a spoon. I find that with chopsticks it’s hard to control the natto:rice ratio, because the natto likes to fall off the top of the rice as you lift it from the bowl. This might also be tied to the fact that I like a 1:1 ratio, whereas I think most people like considerably more rice than natto.

    5) Mix it with the sauce and the mustard in the pack, plus sliced myoga (a fantabulous Japanese aromatic), if you can find it, and I swear it tastes like steak. One of my absolute favorites.

    Try it!!!

  40. Fresh (not frozen), organic natto is now available in the U.S. from Japan Traditional Foods in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. Many Bay Area Japanese food outlets (Nijiya, Suruki, etc.) carry it, and it is also being used by many of the better Japanese restaurants in the area. http://www.meguminatto.com. Combine with fresh, hand-made San Jose Tofu Company tofu, also now more widely available in the Bay Area.

  41. Natto is one of those foods that the people that claim to like it like to brag about the fact that they like it. Which makes me think they secretly know it’s gross. If they didn’t know it was gross, they would just be perplexed why others don’t like it. ;^)

    Taste, texture smell. I prefer all 3, 2 is do-able, one is palatable, 0 is Natto.

    And I love Kimchi, Okra, Uni, blue-cheese, etc…

    Seriously though- it’s not just a cultural thing. From my experience it’s divisive in Japan too. While surely a smaller percentage than those not raised on it, a healthy portion of Japanese people can’t stand it either.

    But you know what food Americans can tease Japanese people with the way they do Americans with Natto? Root beer. I’m not lying. Japanese people hate it. (Except for those that love it of course).

  42. Natto is one of those foods that the people that claim to like it like to brag about the fact that they like it. Which makes me think they secretly know it’s gross. If they didn’t know it was gross, they would just be perplexed why others don’t like it. ;^)

    Taste, texture smell. I prefer all 3, 2 is do-able, one is palatable, 0 is Natto.

    And I love Kimchi, Okra, Uni, blue-cheese, etc…

    Seriously though- it’s not just a cultural thing. From my experience it’s divisive in Japan too. While surely a smaller percentage than those not raised on it, a healthy portion of Japanese people can’t stand it either.

    But you know what food Americans can tease Japanese people with the way they do Americans with Natto? Root beer. I’m not lying. Japanese people hate it. (Except for those that love it of course).

    1. Most non Jews can’t enjoy Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray, which is celery soda. NYC and NJ Jews, OTOH, know it’s G-d’s chosen beverage for accompanying a pastrami on rye. Also Gulden’s spicy mustard, and a small plate of half sour pickles.

      1. Not true. Among enlightened gentiles, Cel-Ray is widely considered to be seated at the right hand of the Father. It can be poured again and again, always to judge between the living and the dead. And its kingdom will have no end.

  43. The first time I had natto, the sushi chef said “I don’t like it myself – only people from Tokyo like that stuff”. I’ve tried it every decade or two since then, and it’s still natto. The list of foods I really really dislike is very short. Natto’s definitely on it; durian probably is as well. (Tempeh’s great, mountain yam’s tolerable, and I was ok with fresh enough uni back when I was carnivorous. Natto’s still gross.)

  44. Taste test: Win! Win! Win!

    I Seriously LOVE this stuff, and have both a fridge and a freezer full to demonstrate that (well, not full, but well stocked).

    It’s my favorite quick, packaged, high protein snack.

    The only annoying part is when the strings go on my chin trying to get it in my mouth cleanly.

    I think the taste is amazing, and the smell too.

    But then, I like durien too, and all sorts of weird things :P

  45. i really hate to admit that i tried it and didn’t like it at all. especially when i know it’s good for you.
    when people ask, i usually describe it as ‘tasting like death’.
    i had it straight out of the fridge, by itself after a quick swirl with chopsticks (the goo and the smell were kind of turn offs). did i just go about it wrong?

    in my defense, love all other soy bean products! i snack on edamame all day and probably eat more tofu than meat these days.. but natto.. *sigh* maybe it’s one of those acquired tastes.

    1. Did it come with the little packet of mustard and sauce (it’s not just soy sauce in there)? If not, it’s not really all that good.

      Put the karashi (Japanese mustard) on top of the natto in the styrofoam cup, then pour the sauce on. Then stir it quite a bit. Personally, I like to really beat it to get it almost foamy.

      Then dump it on some hot rice and enjoy.

      You can also add some nori or even flavored nori.

      As for the “only people from Tokyo like that stuff” comment goes, um, no. I’ve lived all over Japan; it’s ubiquitous. However, as many have said, there are plenty of Japanese people who don’t like it either. I wouldn’t say half, but… I dunno… 10-15%? It’s not uncommon, but most people range from being fine with it to loving it.

      Also, it is most definitely an acquired taste. I really hated it at first, but it’s like any other really tasty thing: it takes awhile. No one liked Scotch whiskey the first time they sipped it, either! Or blue cheese. All of those things require some time and experience to basically learn what is so delicious about them.

      That being said…

      I cannot–cannot–eat uni. I have tried many times. I can’t even understand how anyone likes it. It tastes like Windex to me. Really. I can’t figure out why anyone thought it was a good idea to eat it. But, then again, I can’t find anyone else who thinks it tastes like Windex, so it very likely is just me.

  46. Many things that taste good smell bad. Try to get a kid to eat bleu cheese. They can’t get it past their nose.
    Steve Don’t Eat It is a hilarious column about icky foods, as mentioned above. His post about Huitlacoche makes me howl every time I read it.

  47. I’ve been exposed to natto just once. I cannot comment on the tatse as I couldn’t get within a few feet before the almost uncontrollable dry heaving forced me to quickly leave the vicinity. Sorry mom.

  48. This is true. Soy is Estrogenic meaning it acts the same way estrogen does on the body. In fact, soy is more estrogenic than BPA (Bisphenol A) the chemical in hard plastics that everyone was claiming will kill you. Guess what? Keep eating your soy joy, you’ll get there first.

  49. There was a humorous drama mini-series, “Some Like it Hot” on Japanese TV a few years ago (about a family-run bath house). One of the characters loved natto and would try to eat it on the sly, but the other people would gasp “natto” and run from the room.

    To see for myself, I bought some locally made natto from a Japanese store near San Francisco. Tried it mixed with rice. Here is my take:

    Have you ever accidentally left fresh pinto beans unrefrigerated for a few days? “Whew, rank, throw that out quick!” Ever find a dead animal decomposing? “Gag, gag, don’t breathe that air.” Ever find forgotten food in the fridge drawer swimming in exuded fluids? “Oooh, gasp! Quick, down the disposal.” Natto smells like those things — a horrible rotting smell. To me, it tasted the same as it smelled.

    I remember thinking, “Wow, I guess natto was discovered when someone accidentally left a big batch of soybeans to rot and didn’t want to waste it.”

    Speaking of fermented soy, anyone ever try the Chinese product, fu-yi, also pronounced “fu-ru, fu-yu”. It comes in jars. My father learned about it in his youth, while working on Japanese fishing boats. He showed me how to eat it, by mixing a little fuyi with rice. Tastes kind of like Camembert or blue cheese, not excessively stinky. That I like.

  50. I tried natto once. Ew, ew, ew. The taste was not *horrible* – even the smell wasn’t – but the TEXTURE. UGH. How anything can be that sticky and that slimy at the same time I don’t know.

    Even a lot of Japanese people apparently don’t like the stuff, it seems to be a regional things.

  51. Natto is a perfect staple for me right now as a poor college student. It’s such a great source of low-fat, cheap, filling protein.

    I like it sprinkled with green onions mixed with Japanese mustard, and the packet of tempura sauce it comes with. Sometimes I’ll mix in an egg. I have to keep my face close to my rice bowl to minimize the stringy mess.

  52. The texture looks kinda yummy to me. Like marshmallow.
    I hate root beer. I am intrigued by vegetable soda, where can I buy cel ray?

  53. I tried natto for the first time last week while I was in Hawaii enjoying all the Japanese restaurants I could find. I was not a fan, but like anything fermented I believe it will take a few tries to truly appreciate the flavor and complexity so I will try it again. I met a Japanese girl while I was there that eats it for breakfast every morning, and one of my coworkers that lived in Japan for 2 years loves it. For people that are trying it for the first time, I recommend natto maki (nori and rice roll) – it’s still pungent but a lot easier to handle than straight up natto.

  54. I visited Japan as College student for a month with a Japanese friend and Natto was the only food I was served in his household, that I could not be polite about. I have been introduced once, I refused being introduced again with pasta. That stuff is just rank.

  55. Ok, natto? I am Mr. Japan to everyone I know, including other Japanophiles. Fine enough. But I *WILL NOT* eat natto.

    Sticky wood? Apt, but not quite. Sticky, buttery vomit is how I taste it. The majority of Japanese, I feel, after speaking with so many, is that they hate it too. Remember, though, that not all natto is the same. Just like any food in Japan, there are endless special varieties of it, many local types only eaten or made within one town. I’ve had typical natto several times, and it’s always sticky, slightly buttery vomit to me. The texture, oh god, the texture is worse than eating rotting flesh. I can’t describe it, it’s like I imagine snot and gristle mixing and liquefying is.

    I have had ONE type of tolerable natto, at a small mochi-tsuki party last year outside Sapporo. It was a soft, buttery taste, like over boiled potatoes when it liquefied. It still wasn’t something I’d seek out.

    I will never claim to like something to impress someone consistantly. So I HATE natto. Go figure, I’m American.

    But UNI? I *LOVE* uni! I dance for uni if I have to. The stuff is godlike- but here’s the secret- don’t eat it by itself, unless it’s fresh stuff from up near Rishiri/Rebun islands or Wakkanai area (north tip of Hokkaido). That uni up there tastes AMAZING by itself, noticeably sweeter than other stuff. Windex? Who are you getting your uni from if it tastes like windex? Jesus, that doesn’t sound right at all.

    Anyway- the trick to eating uni- eat it donburi style, over rice, preferably with fresh konbu. It’s amazing that way, and mixes flavor well. Fresh is amazing. Fresh stuff from Rishiri/Rebun area is mind-blowing! I would practically kill for real, good, fresh uni, not the shite they sell in “trendy” sushi bars around the US. The real deal is one of the most pleasant Japanese foods there is, next to mochi & mountain mushroom miso soup.

    The texture with uni is that good stuff, fresh, should melt in your mouth like warm chopped butter. It shouldn’t be stiff at all. Some hate that texture..

    If you ever get a chance to eat any from the Rishiri/Rebun area, TAKE IT- your mind will orgasm. Especially if you get the local Unidake Unidon- Only uni in a bowl, often over rice on request… 35-60$ a pop, but sooooooooo goooooood….*drowns in slobber* ^_^

  56. I’m sure this has already been mentioned but only 1/2 of Japan likes natto. That’s Eastern Japan (Tokyo). The other half, Western Japan, Kyoto, Osaka, find natto just as disgusting as every other non-Japanese culture.

  57. I think a lot of the natto-hate is due not to the taste, texture, or even smell (come on, guys, we eat smellier cheeses).

    Well, I, for one, do *not* eat smelly cheeses. I only eat a few mild cheeses; can’t stand the others.

    But if you tell a bunch of people “there’s this really gross stuff called natto,” then their minds are set to “gross.”

    I had never heard of it before until I noticed my host student eating it for breakfast. “Good God, what is that awful-smelling stuff?” was what I thought.

  58. I don’t think anyone mentioned it but an important thing about natto is that the more you stir it the healthier it gets (I believe it is making longer molecular chains or something) and it smells less. If you are eating bad natto then it won’t get last nasty.

    Personally I absolutely cannot deal with watching someone eat natto in front of me. It looks horrible. But, I have eaten little packs on hot rice in the mountains, equals awesome. Fried natto croquets = awesome, absolutely best is in sushi as natto-maki. The chefs use good fresh natto and stir it appropriately so you are not getting any slimy stringy mess but something clean tasting and high-protein on the palate, it is perfect, the lowest cost on the menu and very good for you. Probably healthier than the rice and all those calories too! I totally recommend natto-maki sushi and the rest of it if you don’t want it don’t eat it! There is no law that you must eat natto. But there are a lot of very smelly fermented things that are very good for you in the world, it is a whole genre of food science / legend / cooking. In “Moyashimon” a manga about a university department studying fermentation (the main character can actually see and talk to microorganisms so you get to see each different microbe, which is cute) and one of the worst was when they buried the food underground. FWIW I’ve had stromming (Swedish fish fermented in the can) and the worst thing about that is if you spill it you will have the smell for a year, no kidding. The moral seems to be if you can kill the smell it is great. Natto is among the less repellent and best for you it seems.

  59. I think the taste/smell of natto is exaggerated by people who don’t like it. I find it to have a very faint blue cheese odor, and the taste is mild and nutty. I think the loogie-like slime produced during fermentation is the dealbreaker for most people; this is why my vegetarian wife won’t eat it. I like it mixed with rice, it dissipates the texture somewhat. I live in eastern Japan and while it’s popular, many folks just can’t rock the natto, same as sushi.

    jjasper: Being a non-gentile, I find Cel-Ray worse than actual celery! I did try a killer kimchee soda the other day though.

    1. I think your comments about natto are right-on. My (very North American) wife and I (French-Canadian) truly *love* natto. On our noodles, in our soups, as sushi, in rolls or just served over rice. If you like blue cheese or other ‘fine’ cheeses, you’ll have no problem warming up to the wholesome goodness of natto.

      I have had other ‘soy’ foods that were terrible; stinky-tofu in snake alley somewhere in Taipei comes to mind.

      Natto on the otherhand is heavenly. We just purchased 20 packages tonight to keep in our freezer over the coming months. Never know when you’ll have a noodle desire attack. :-)

  60. Ah, just finished a cup of the fine stuff.

    Too bad Korean natto sucks..it’s called natto, but it doesn’t compare to the Japanese stuff. I can only get it in E-mart or Lotte Mart, and it comes in a bunch of individually wrapped tiny containers that are a packaging disaster. :(

  61. I wish I liked natto. I also wish I liked uni. Unfortunately I like neither. It’s not the smell or the texture, it is the taste I don’t like. Tried it plain, tried it over rice, tried it in maki, tried it with karashi and raw egg – no way. Same with uni. I’ve tried both cheap kaiten-zushi uni and I’ve tried expensive sushiya uni. Don’t like it. I’d much much rather have some good hotate. But then again I am also the only person in the known universe who doesn’t like okonomiyaki either.

    Although, I’ve recently moved to Taiwan and they have their own soy foulness which is way worse than natto. Choudoufu (stinky tofu) smells like a port-o-potty and tastes like it too. All my Taiwanese friends were raving about how good it was (while I was shaking my head as I passed the rank-smelling choudoufu shops) and, I tried it expecting to like it, but could only eat a bite before running off to rince out my mouth. You may like natto, but really, you’re only a true soy lover if you like choudoufu.

  62. I love everything about natto. I eat it frequently here in the states and every morning for breakfast while I’m in Japan.

    The first time I ate it in Japan I was commented upon by a women that said she couldn’t get here family to eat the stuff and it’s weird to see a foreigner doing so.

    I’ll try the spaghetti recipe. Sounds good. If you want another taste sensation, add raw tuna and a quail egg (raw) to the natto and serve over sushi rice!

  63. I enjoyed reading this article as a vegan who eats a fair amount of ‘good’ soy but not very much ‘bad’ soy. However, I wanted to point out that the Tofurky brand deli slices and roast aren’t made from any protein isolates. They only have tofu in them, along with bean flours and wheat gluten. So I’d suggest that you remove them from the list as they aren’t anything like the processed fake meat stuff made from isolated soy protein.

  64. In Indonesia,fermented soy called tempe. and fermented soy sauce called tau-co.they are traditional foods.

  65. I live in Ohio, not famous for Japanese food. At a local place tried Natto sushi once (not that I could taste it well by the time it was in the sushi).

    The waitress said “Are you sure you want to order that?”

  66. natto is amazing! add some sauce, some mustard, stir it up and get is really slimy! Soooooooo good. It’s just slimy like okra or pudding. and the smell… come on! the smellier the better! like a good pungent cheese from france is tenderly aged. For those who can acquire the taste we are blessed with exquisite and exotic sensory adventures of the pallet every bite! Come on join the party in your mouth! Acquire the taste! Don’t give up after a couple failures, keep coming back a little at a time! When you do finally get it… it’s like joining the mile high club, meaning it’s no longer a forbidden fruit, and no one can take it from you and it gets better every time you have it, AND you learn that there are so many kinds of natto… so much natto and so little time on this earth…

  67. If “physician Daphne Miller” would do her homework, she might realize that the only soy ingredients in Tofurky are tofu and soy sauce.

    Regardless, her position is completely incoherent because she’s busy contrasting tofu, “a relatively unprocessed” soy food, with those nasty processed soy foods which are “heated, mashed, and denatured”. Anybody who has made tofu themselves knows that “heated, mashed, and denatured” is a pretty accurate description of how tofu is made. That the author doesn’t know this really doesn’t give me much confidence in her knowledge of the subject matter.

    What’s with the recent popularity of these contrarian soy-bashing books, anyway?

  68. When I was in the states I used to buy soy milk, and soy yogurt all the time. I did try natto there and it was smelly at the time. I never bought the fake turkey, hot dogs, etc. because I never liked the real version. ;)

    Now that I’ve been in Japan for almost two years, I’ve come to like natto. My boyfriend asked me if I liked it and I told him about the smell. He bought one of his favorite brands and made himself some. I smelled it, and was shocked that there wasn’t any nasty smell to it. I do wish I could find soy yogurt here. I miss that!

    BTW, eating soy based products helps take the edge off your period. I’ve noticed my mood stays about even the entire month when I eat soy, as compared to when I don’t.

  69. I had natto in Japan, and while I didn’t love it, I didn’t understand why it’s considered truly vile. The texture is the only thing I didn’t find super palatable.

    However, I’m a big fan of cheeses, including stinky ones, and the smell and taste of natto was very similar to a moldy, stinky cheese. If you’re a fan of those, natto is probably no big deal at all!

  70. I tried a natto sushi roll once because I like sushi and don’t eat meat. How bad was it? Instead of nori it should have been wrapped in Charmin.

  71. #10, the higher rate of stomach cancer (and esophageal cancer in China) is thought to be more from a genetic trait common to those populations, just as Tay-Sach’s is more common to certain Jewish populations. The food they eat may be exacerbating the genetic flaw though.

  72. If I were Tofurkey, I’d be getting my lawsuit on. She says tofu is OK, and then in the same breath condemns Tofurkey. Here is the ingredients list to the Tofurkey “Italian sausages”:

    Ingredients: Organic tofu (water, organic soybeans, magnesium chloride, calcium chloride), vital wheat gluten, expeller pressed non-genetically engineered canola oil or hi oleic safflower oil, water, soy sauce (water, non-genetically engineered soybeans, wheat, salt, culture), sun dried tomatoes, textured wheat protein, basil, spices, granulated garlic, salt, chili pepper.

    So unless it is the “textured wheat protein” down at the end–or is it the basil–I think this “processed” trope should be filed with all the other non-scientific put-downs of “processed” foods.

  73. So my Japanese co-worker told me that “no foreigner can eat Natto”. During my three months stay in Japan I ate it once per week to get adapted to its distinctive taste. But honestly, if you don’t grew up with this stuff you will probably never be able to really enjoy it. And it’s the last thing I wanna have for breakfast ;)

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