Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
For the past few years, dedicated nattophiles have been organizing an annual dinner celebrating that humble fermented bean, natto, on its own day, no less. What? Natto has its own day? Why yes! It’s the 10th of July. Why July 10th? Because, in Japanese, “nana,” or “na,” is the number 7, and “to” is thenumber 10. Hence, 7-10, or July 10th.
The Le clan, owners of The Pig & the Lady once again hosted the dinner. The festivities usually include the crowning of a “Natto King” and a “Natto Queen,” along with various games like natto tossing, natto eating and even natto haiku.
Stinky, slimy bean
Who was the first to eat you?
Must have been starving
What is natto, and is it made like that intentionally? My educated guess is that way back when, someone
in Japan steamed some soybeans and misplaced a batch. It just so happened that this misplaced batch was set on straw that, coincidentally, harbored some Bacillus subtilis. It must have been in a warmer location of the house that allowed the B. subtilis to start fermenting the cooled soybeans.
After a couple of days, the occupants must have detected something that smelled like sweaty, unaired-out gym shoes in the kitchen and found the by-now-fermented lost batch of soybeans. They probably were very hungry — like eat the slimy, smelly beans, or starve to death-hungry — because I just can’t see the first gourmands who actually put the natto in their mouth as being really enthusiastic about chewing and swallowing something that smelled like toe jams and looked like hanabata. So it had to have been eat, or starve.
Early in my youth, I had no inclination to consume natto willingly. This was despite having learned in my undergraduate nutrition classes that natto was actually a healthy dietary option. You see, beans are good sources of protein, but humans do not digest bean proteins as readily as we do animal proteins. The fermentation process by B. subtilis helps to predigest these proteins, making it a better protein source than if we simply consumed steamed soybeans.
Natto also contains nattokinase, an enzyme that could help to prevent blood clots from forming — the same blood clots that can lead to a heart attack or stroke — or assist in dissolving clots that have already formed. But you still have to get past natto’s smell and texture.
Slimy but it’s fine
Stinky but so is French cheese
And tasty with rice
So, although I never tried the fermented bean for more than half my life, I now enjoy it in certain applications — like mixed with raw ‘ahi and Japanese pickles, or when experiencing the creativity of Chef Andrew Le during the midsummer natto feast.
• Natto bo la lot — garlicky beef rolled and grilled in a betel leaf, with natto
• Natto beignet, Parmesan, pickled date
The bo la lot was Chef Le’s usual garlic and spiced beef rolled in betelnut leaves, then grilled and topped with natto. But the beignet! Crisp exterior; soft, almost creamy interior with the umami of both the Parmesan and natto . . .
• Natto and bone marrow, ikura, black truffle, baguette, sake bone luge — after everything goes on the crisped baguette, you get to drink sake out of the giant marrow bone
This was my favorite course of the evening! I know it doesn’t sound like it would work, but earthy, funky natto with fatty bone marrow, briny ikura that popped in your mouth and truffle . . . I told Chef Le he needs to add this to his regular menu!
• Natto pho-sta — think pasta, but, well, you know, with slimy fermented beans
The pasta itself mixed with the natto was good, but the raw sprouts mixed throughout wasn’t my cup of tea. That’s probably because I’m not a big fan of raw bean sprouts and alfalfa sprouts. For my personal taste, if he had substituted the sprouts with julienne pickled ginger or cabbage, it would have been winnah, winnah, pho-sta dinnah!
• Cha ca la vong, natto nuoc cham — because sweet-tart fish sauce isn’t funky enough by itself
Another great dish in which you added your own “toppings” to Vietnamese-style somen salad. Something about the fresh herbs and noodles with earthy natto flavors and the slimy texture actually enhanced the sauce.
• Natto gelato, brown butter coconut crumble, warm bourbon maple syrup
• Natto rice crispie treats
Once again, Chef Le astounded me with a natto dessert creation! The earthiness made the gelato almost savory, with the brown butter tying together earthy natto and sweet maple syrup. (Chef Le once sprinkled shaved truffles — the mushroom variety, not the chocolate variety — on ice cream. It was fabulous!) And those natto rice crispie treats topped with crumbled bacon . . . sweet and savory!
Needless to say, it was a very enjoyable dinner that I plan to attend again next year on the 10th of July. If you want to join us next year, just view the “Natto Day” web page on Facebook, or follow Mari Taketa’s blog on Frolic Hawaii.
Now I crave natto,
On sushi rice . . . mmmm . . .
So, my natto palate has evolved from “not ever trying that,” to “It’s good mixed with the perfect culinary partners,” to “When’s the next Natto Dinner?” I’ll come clean, I’m nothing like most the natto fanatics who attended this year’s Natto Day dinner. On its own, natto, to me, still tastes like used coffee grounds — the kind found at the bottom of a cup of Turkish coffee. But I’ll still try to attend these annual natto dinners, mainly for the camaraderie of sharing a table with fellow foodies whose craving for natto is the same as my craving for cilantro or the perfect Syrah. But that’s another column . . .
Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”