In Japan, conventional wisdom is that there are two kinds of people: those who love natto, and those who hate it. These feelings aren’t inherited, they aren’t regional, they don’t correlate to age or sex or any other general characteristics of the population, but still, they run very deep, and rarely change; in Japan, at least, people’s opinions about natto seem to be as inexplicable as they are unwavering. (And here is a nice visual illustration of the point, if you’re interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_dOwq8wJmk&feature=related).
In the States things seem to be a little bit different. Obviously, the vast majority of Americans have never tried natto; but even disregarding them, there still seems to be more variety than just the staunch lovers and haters in this country. There seem to be many of us who only like it in certain ways — sweet, or cooked, or mixed with vinegar to cut the stickiness, for example — and many of us who are ambivalent, unsure, intrigued, or otherwise searching for the best way to enjoy natto. Given this state of affairs, I thought I’d share some of my favorite ways to eat natto and hopefully spur some creativity in your own kitchen.
One of my favorite ways to eat natto is as part of a salad: shredded root vegetables and seaweed soaked in rice vinegar, maybe with mirin and sesame oil, allowed to marinate about half an hour. What you see here is daikon, carrot, beet, and shredded konbu (aka kelp). Wakame, dulse, and nori are nice too. Once the seaweed is rehydrated, right before eating, I stir the salad into the gooey natto matrix and spread it out on a plate, so it isn’t all bound up in one big ball. I find it light and refreshing, and more interesting than your typical seaweed salad.
If I’m eating natto for breakfast, I usually just have it over brown rice, maybe with a bit of scallion chopped up on top, which is probably the most common way to eat natto in Japan. But sometimes I don’t think of the natto until I’ve already started making something else; eggs and toast, for example. I love the runny yolks of a sunnyside-up egg, and one day I realized that some stringy natto on the toast, with the egg on top just makes the gooey-ness that much better.
If you do think of it, trying taking your natto out of the fridge the night before you eat it, and leave it uncovered at room temp. This will give the bacillus plenty of time to wake up from its dormant state, making it stickier, tastier, and more nutritious by the time it gets to your mouth.
Along similar lines, I sometimes stir a bit of honey into the natto to increase the viscosity, then eat it as-is, or on top of yogurt for extra creaminess. If you mix the honey and natto the night before, the results are even more impressive.
Just the other day I stirred a bit of peanut butter into my natto, to thicken it up, then added a few raw peanuts in as well; the saltiness and crunchiness were interesting complements, and all that fat in the PB made for a satisfying snack.
When I’m having natto as a main part of my lunch or dinner, I like to eat it with fish. It’s pretty common in Japan to eat natto with chunks of raw tuna — maguro natto, it’s called — but mercury scares me, and I can’t really afford anything but canned tuna anyway, so I started eating my natto with canned salmon instead. If you buy it with the bone and skin on, you can get quite a lot of fish for not much money, which is nice. I like to let the fish marinate in a bit of miso first (maybe with some vinegar too), then eat it alongside the natto, or all mixed in together. Simple, clean; powerfood.
And of course you can forgo the fish and just mix natto into your miso soup, which I find goes quite well with a few mushrooms like shiitakes or maitakes, along with a variety of seaweeds.
Or you can go straight for the vinegar. Vinegar does a nice job of balancing out the natto, and muting it a bit — rice vinegar doesn’t add any noticeable flavor, which is sometimes a good thing, but the ume plum vinegar definitely adds something special. A nice balsamic — thick and sweet, aged in wooden casks — somehow mellows and accentuates the natto simultaneously. It sounds impossible, but it’s true, and it’s a very nice effect.
Of course natto doesn’t need to be the center of the meal. It can make a nice accompaniment to something else — like a steak, for example. This was a revelation for me. My brother suggested trying natto with BBQ sauce a few weeks back, and I was skeptical at first, not least because I don’t know any BBQ sauce whose ingredients I really trust. But I tried it anyway, with some stuff my parents used to feed me, and I found it actually works quite well. I basted the meat lightly with the sauce, and also mixed the sauce in with the natto. When the steak was well-seared I took it off the heat and dressed it with the BBQ-natto; the flavors actually melded well together, especially as the heat from the meat made the natto into a rich glaze.
I’m thinking to do a honey-mint-natto mixture next, and have it with some lamb.
These are simple ideas, but easy, and — to my palate at least — tasty. If you’re looking for something a little more involved, an old Iron Chef episode has interesting things to try: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-xVUBlL_U8. Our website also has quite a few recipes posted on it as well.
What are some of your favorite ways to eat natto? When, where, how, and why do you like it best? Please, post away…