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.
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.