A Vegan Pantry Staple You Can Get at Any 7-11 in Japan

Natto: what it is and how to love it.

June 25, 2020
Photo by Instagram | @thefermentary

Even though—like miso and tempeh—it is made of fermented soybeans, sticky, earthy, funky natto does not receive the same love as its cousins. Slimy foods are just a little bit challenging to sell—no matter how high in protein or environmentally sustainable.

Let’s get the technicals out of the way: Natto is boiled soybeans that have been inoculated with Bacillus subtilis and left to ferment for about a day. The culture is found in a type of straw that was used historically in Japan to store food. Like yogurt, natto’s origin was likely accidental, probably involving an epicure discovering that she liked the taste of soybeans that had been wrapped in straw. Somewhere between the discovery that fermented soybeans are edible and 2020, natto became a Japanese staple.

Nutritionally, there is no food more appropriate than fermented soybeans for our protein-obsessed and environmentally conscious present. Natto is a dense source of plant-based protein (31 grams per cup), probiotics (excellent for microbiome health), and vitamin K2 (crucial for funneling calcium to bones). The production of organic, sustainably grown soybeans requires relatively little water and land, especially when compared to beef and milk production.

Should you find yourself jet-lagged and awake at 6am in Japan, visit one of the 24/7 gyudon (beef bowl) shops. For about half the cost of an oat milk latte, you can get a tray of rice, natto, egg, and a bowl of miso soup—all from a vending machine. But, a natto-ful breakfast can be had just as easily here in the states.

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Top Comment:
“I usually use a small rectangle of nori to pick up a portion of natto and rice. Very typical Japanese breakfast, with miso soup, pickles, a bit of rolled omelet, and maybe a piece of salted salmon! YUM It a ”
— David W.

At any Japanese supermarket, you’ll find shelves of single-serving styrofoam squares of natto to rival the yogurt aisle of a French Monoprix. Or, you can do as my (registered dietician, mostly vegan, Kripalu-loving) mother does, and make your own natto at home by boiling and inoculating soybeans with cultures purchased online.

Natto is most commonly enjoyed first thing in the morning: In a small or medium bowl, the mass of soybeans is whipped with chopsticks until very sticky and stringy (aficionados claim the more thoroughly you stir and aerate the natto, the better it tastes). It all gets served on a bed of warm rice, with a dash of soy sauce and karashi mustard, a raw egg, and showering of chopped scallions.

But why stop at breakfast? Try a spoonful of natto folded into salads for a boost of protein, packed into pan-fried patties with crumbled tofu, or atop soft-serve. And if you don't like it the first time, don't fret (half of Japan finds natto inedible)—it took me a few tries before I could fully appreciate natto's funky flavor and slimy texture.

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Have you tried natto before? Tell us about it in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Andrea Eisen
    Andrea Eisen
  • David Weiner
    David Weiner
  • Margaret Manzi
    Margaret Manzi
  • Masa
  • May
I'm an old soul


Andrea E. April 18, 2021
I love natto, i have mostly had it as remaking with quail egg. It is the most wonderful u,ami flavor...I am going to try to make my own...this makes me so happy
David W. July 2, 2020
I love natto! It's definitely not something for picky eaters. I describe the taste as a sort of woody cheese flavor. Once it's defrosted (it's usually sold frozen), open a container, add the flavor packets (there's almost always a little envelope of mustard, and one of an umami sauce), whip it up into a frothy, slimy goo with a pair of chopsticks, and put it on top of a bowl of rice. I usually use a small rectangle of nori to pick up a portion of natto and rice. Very typical Japanese breakfast, with miso soup, pickles, a bit of rolled omelet, and maybe a piece of salted salmon! YUM

It a

Margaret M. July 1, 2020
If a westerner orders natto in japan (according to someone I know who has gone there on business trips) the server might double check that the diner knows what he is ordering and that is what he actually wants. I'm curious to try some.
Masa June 28, 2020
If the culture is still active in your natto, you can just use that as the starter for making it. It's the soy beans that are harder to come by, since they usually only sell one kind of soy bean in the stores.
Chihiro June 29, 2020
Thanks, Masa! Fascinating to know about using existing natto for active cultures. Re the beans themselves, my mom uses this from Amazon. The beans are larger than a lot of the commercial varieties, but it's very delicious! https://www.amazon.com/Organic-Beans-Soybeans-Pounds-Non-GMO/dp/B00Z1272WQ
May June 25, 2020
I love natto! I grew up eating it and still eat it today. I like it best on hot rice with furikake. I've also had it in an Asian-style nacho dish with natto, ahi poke, radish sprouts, salad greens, and won ton chips. If you can get past the smell and texture, it is delicious, inexpensive, and filling.
Chihiro June 29, 2020
I really want those nachos! Have also wanted to try it on pizza.