Natto: The Fermented Soybean Superfood From Japan


There’s nothing in this world quite like food that binds people together. A staple of existence, yet by no means just the essence of it, food can do to the world what few other things can- have even staunch enemies reveling in a shared exquisite experience of it. History might not exactly be replete with inferences about the greater good that food might have bestowed the world with. But that does not take anything away from the fact that the love for food incites a bonding quite alien to what you would want to make out of it. Which explains why throughout the world that remains host to so many varied cultures and people with such drastic cuisinal differences, there always exists at least a singular element that overrule all other diversities with its common prevalence.

And why just derivations, even with food cultures that reside at opposite poles of each other, the strong affinity for taste means that people, well entire populations sometimes, acquires such universal preference for some foreign food that it ceases to be not native for them. In harbouring such a heartwarming love from folks from all over, the realm of gastronomy indeed is one restricted to not just the senses- it caters also as much to the emotions.

The similarities are more probable in cultures and countries that are geographically bound within the ambits of a common continent. And one such component that is a binding factor of the cuisines of many a Asian countries are fermented foods. There indeed exist ‘universal’ fermented foods like yogurt and cheese, breads and beers, and even coffee and chocolates! But when even with regional variations, it is the same ingredient that undergoes the same mode and process of turning into a traditional food, it is when you know that the loyalties exist there and then, since forever.

And one such food item that derives a whole lot of its fame, or otherwise, in its many fermented variations happens to be the soya bean. Particularly in Asia, fermented soybeans are a huge ‘thing’, as much as for their nutritional benefits as for the accompanying smell. With an aroma that is inarguably not the most pleasant of all, fermented soybeans have forever remained a hot topic of contention even among people whose roots inherently link them to this wonder food. An equally visible presence across the platter of a number of Asian countries, from India and China to Nepal and Vietnam to Japan and Korea and Indonesia, this particular food divides and unites people from a wide many races and cultures and regions, not so much for its taste as for its characteristic and utterly uncompromising aroma.

In India, this fermented soybean foodology is a recurring and no less polarizing a phenomenon. To be more general though, fermented foods have always been found in abundance in India. Take for instance the dosa which is the Indian version of the pancake that is made from a fermented batter. Or the appam of Kerala and Tamil Nadu which anglicizes as hoppers in Sri Lanka. Even the national sweet of India, the jalebi is a fermented delicacy. And so are the dhoklas of Gujarat and some of the many traditional drinks across the country. But perhaps no singular ingredient has so encompassed the global diversity of flavour as fermented soya beans.

Particularly in states that sit in and around the Himalayas, the north eastern regions of India to be precise, these fermented beans have been the rage since long. Whether it be the axone of Nagaland or the Tungrymbai of Meghalaya, the bekang of Mizoram or the piak of Arunachal Pradesh, this is one cuisinal commonality that cannot be overlooked. Even the kinema of Nepal and the miso of Japan are close cousins and so are some lesser known Chinese and Japanese counterparts. But the one variation of this striking food that has captured our attention well enough to grant it place of privilege in our discussion is yet another Japanese appropriation, that which goes by the name natto.

A traditional Japanese food that is often served for breakfast, natto is no less distinctive than any other ferment soybean based foods that you would have encountered. But unlike axone and even kinema and almost every other variation in the subcontinent, the natto of Japan is distinctive in the fermentation process. The Bacillus subtilis var. natto helps in the fermentation of the natto soybeans while the Himalayan additives are more ‘subdued’. Axone and kinema for instance are allowed to ferment under the sun or over any warm and humid surface without the introduction of any bacterial culture. The historical preparation of natto is however more in sync with that of its Himalayan avatars. Traditionally fermented by storing the steamed soybeans in rice straw, natto indeed is as ethnic as its peers. Whatever that might be, the end result in each of the cases is not very different, resulting in a food that is really unique, in terms of flavor and aroma.

natto in straw
Source: Japan Update

In its powerful smell, strong flavor, and sticky, slimy texture, natto might not sound like the perfect breakfast for many. And indeed it isn’t. More of an acquired taste even amongst those who find it ingrained in their food culture, natto however is incredibly healthy. That is an attribute derived essentially of it being a food from the fermented furnace. Foods that are fermented essentially encompass a wider range of health benefits as they tend to be rich in probiotic bacteria. No any different is the nutritional status therefore of natto, which is being increasingly hailed as a modern superfood.

Like axone, the taste of natto too seats in a umami distinction but the latter is also a complete food in itself. A bowl of rice with this stringy mucus like rendition of soybeans shrouded in an ammonia like smell still comprises the staple first meal of the day for many Japanese. The flavour can of course be complemented with servings of sauces and mustard, along with some onions on the side. Axone however tends to be mainly a ingredient in cooking, being the secret recipe to such masterful winners like pork with axone or even with chicken and fish and beef. Axone also makes for flavorful chutneys and pickles with its peculiar flavor but rarely is had with rice just like that. Natto also can serve as an ingredient for a wide variety of dishes, while modern interpretations have seen it being commercially available in a host of different packaging and varieties. Axone though is rarely commercialized and hence is yet to become even a pan Indian phenomenon, let alone being a global one like Japan’s natto is all set to be.

Comparisons and contrasts apart however, what is contributing to the slowly but steady emergence of the natto as a healthy food indulged in throughout the world is its array of benefits that which extends also to beauty. In its very own enzyme called nattokinase that which speeds up release on fermentation, natto is essentially a powerhouse of proteins. Nattokinase harbours immense ability to get into the blood stream and destroy blood clots, thereby thinning the blood and improving blood flow. In fact as a natural, side effect free agent of blood thinning, natto can also be a potential and cheap substitute to expensive medical coagulants that are so much a potent requirement for heart attack patients. From such benefits, it also follows naturally that natto can be quite effective in reducing the risk of hypertension and stroke, while preventing heart attacks. Even otherwise, this superfood can very well promote a healthy heart. Being a rich source of fiber and probiotics, natto helps reduce cholesterol levels as well as high levels of blood pressure.

Also as one of the rare plant sources of vitamin K2, natto is one of the most potent natural bone health promoter. Whether that be protecting against age related ailments like osteoporosis or in promoting bone density in general, natto does have an important role to play in strengthening your bones.

Being a fermented food, natto also aids naturally in digestion by introducing healthy bacteria into your gut. The high fiber content of these fermented soya beans as well as fewer antinutrients and more beneficial plant compounds and enzymes all contribute toward making natto such a superfood for easy digestion and efficient absorption of its nutrients. This also increases immunity, as promoting a healthy gut already takes you a long way forward in promoting a healthy body. An iron rich food that comes also with high levels of vitamin C, zinc, selenium and copper, natto is one of the healthiest bets you can gamble your immune system with.

But perhaps the most appealing benefit of natto lies in its endowment to beauty. Whoever proclaimed that an apple a day keeps the doctor away sure would not mind a similar common referendum on Japan’s fermented superfood as well. With modern day adages like ‘a pack of natto a day keeps the death away’ the focus here is not just on the health aspects of this somewhat unappetising food. A great source of a little known wonder supplement PPQ or Pyrroloquinoline quinone is what makes natto such a favorite among the Japanese when in comes to maintaining their youthful vitality and beauty. It makes healthy skin the norm for its most dedicated consumers, even as high levels of vitamin B6 and vitamin E boosts cell turnover and offsets skin aging. And in promoting your overall health and vitality, natto in fact does let you glow in true confirmation of what we already know- true beauty comes from within! Such a delicate, beautiful superfood and all we can care for is its ‘funny’ aroma- na(h) tto fair!