The Fermented Soybean Has a Fan Club in Hawai‘i!
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Eien Hunter-Ishikawa begins each morning with a cup of hot home-roasted coffee, two pieces of homemade toast drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and a most unlikely topping: a heaping scoop of freshly made nattō — yes, those pungent fermented soybeans!
Eien is a musician, composer and educator based in Portland, Ore. He performs drumset, taiko, percussion and shinobue (Japanese side-blown flute). While working on his master’s degree in music with an emphasis on percussion performance at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa in 2003, he performed with the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble and taught classes at the Taiko Center of the Pacific. Eien now performs with the contemporary taiko quartet, On Ensemble, and studies traditional forms of Japanese music with master musician and dancer Kyosuke Suzuki. He also leads workshops around the country on a variety of topics.
In addition to his work as a musician, Eien is a passionate home cook and a fermentationist who is especially interested in beer, bread and nattō. He was born and raised in Japan’s Saitama Prefecture, where he developed his love for nattō as a child. He started experimenting with making his own nattō in 2010 after trying to find fresh varieties on the U.S. mainland. With nattō garnering worldwide attention for its growing list of health benefits and signature slimy texture, Eien’s nattō demonstrations have grown in popularity in recent years.
I joined a packed crowd of 60 fellow nattō enthusiasts at da Shop: books + curiosities in Kaimukï on a warm Sunday evening in June to take in Eien’s first nattō demonstration in Hawai‘i. The audience ranged in age from millennials to retirees. An exciting buzz filled the air with talk of nattō and the opportunity we would have later in the evening to sample Eien’s homemade batch.
Eien started the session by asking how many of us had tried nattō and whether we ate it because we liked the taste. Except for three people, everyone said they ate nattō just because they like it.
“This is very different from my Mainland talks,” Eien chuckled.
He explained that on the Mainland, and even in Japan, there are people who don’t particularly love nattō. They consume it solely for its health properties.
Among its many health benefits, nattō is rich in Vitamin K2 and fiber, which helps to regulate blood sugar and lower LDL cholesterol. Additionally, Vitamin K2 helps deliver calcium to the bones and is commonly found in animal flesh, which makes nattō a beneficial option for vegans. Nattō is also packed with a protein enzyme called nattokinase, which is a by-product of nattō fermentation. According to Eien, the enzyme acts as a blood thinner, supports brain function and stress reduction and boosts the immune system.
Eien clarified several common misconceptions about nattō. First, he said, the agent that turns soybeans into nattō is not mold; rather it is a spore-forming bacteria called Bacillus subtilis. The typical styrofoam container of nattō that you buy at the supermarket contains 40 to 45 grams of beans. One gram of nattō — that’s one to two beans — has 10 million bacteria. What makes nattō slimy, or “neba neba ni suru,” results from the bacteria’s mechanism, called the biofilm, to protect itself under harsh conditions, such as freezing and heat. B. subtilis spores can survive in frozen nattō and in our stomach and intestinal system while regular bacteria cannot survive, thus improving intestinal and digestive health.
The second misconception people tend to have about nattō is that it is acidic, since it is a product of fermentation. While other fermented foods such as kimchi exhibit this reaction, nattō’s pH actually rises during the initial fermentation process, making it more basic. As nattō is left to ferment, however, the acidity rises, the beans shrink and turn more liquidy, and it loses its nutty flavor.
However, small beans do not always indicate that the nattō is old. There are various bean sizes, such as Ibaraki Prefecture’s small bean Mito natto, hikiwari style, in which the nattō is pulverized before fermentation, and big bean varieties, such as Hokkaidō nattō. Generally, though, bigger beans tend to take longer to ferment and have a milder taste. Eien said he prefers bigger beans due to their texture.
It was finally time to taste Eien’s nattō, which he had made 10 days earlier. He challenged us to see if we could taste two distinct flavors: diacetyl, the fake butter flavor found in movie theater popcorn, and nuttiness, tasted in roasted nuts, chocolate, toast and coffee. I could definitely detect the nutty flavor, and I was impressed at the freshness and heartiness of the beans.
Eien was asked about foods that pair well with nattō. He encouraged us to think beyond just green onions and rice, and to instead consider foods that pair well with butter and chocolate, since those are the desired flavors in nattō. Eien said he has enjoyed nattō in Japanese curry, chili, pizza and even on top of a waffle. The recipe possibilities are endless for a versatile ingredient like nattō.
All nattō lovers have their own preference for the level of sliminess of their nattō. Eien cited an NHK study that determined that stirring nattō 424 times, or constantly for about two minutes, produced the best umami flavor and optimal aeration. If stirred any longer, the nattō tends to lose its stringiness. According to the study, sauces such as shoyu should be added on the 350th stir.
Eien’s nattō-making process begins with washing and soaking organically grown soybeans from Nebraska in lots of water overnight for about 15 to 20 hours. Fresh beans work best, as older beans will not soak up the water as well. He then puts the beans in a pressure cooker with a half-inch of water at 15 pounds per square inch for 45 minutes. The steamed beans are very soft at this stage and are innoculated with B. subtilis spores. Although frozen nattō can be used as a starter, Eien uses Mitoku traditional nattō spores, which he purchases online at Cultures for Health ($12.99 per bottle). Only a miniscule amount is needed, which he mixes with water and adds to the beans. Eien then ferments the beans for approximately 18 hours at 104 degrees Farenheit in a homemade temperature regulating contraption. Once the nattō has cooled to room temperature, it is packaged, put in the fridge and is ready to eat.
“If you like nattō, you can learn how to do it,” Eien said.
Several audience members shared challenges they experienced while making nattō at home and asked for his advice on what they were doing wrong. Eien assured them that it took him many tries to develop a process that worked and that even today, not all of his batches turn out perfectly uniform.
Nattō can also be made from black beans, edamame, chickpeas and even azuki (red mung) beans. Fermentation takes a lot of experiementation, which is not for the faint of heart.
I left the demonstration feeling inspired to try some of the new recipes I learned and vowed to make my own nattō one day. In the meantime, Eien opened my eyes to the importance of seeking out fresh, locally made nattō, such as Aloha Tofu’s fresh nattō (check out the Natto Spaghetti recipe on its website, aloha-tofu.com), even though the frozen varieties boast the same health benefits. Whether you have been a nattō fan your whole life or haven’t yet mustered up the courage to try the iconic, pungent bean, it’s always a great day to eat nattō.
To learn more about Eien Hunter-Ishikawa, visit his website at eienhunterishikawa.com. You can also check out his natto blog, Natto Time, under the “Groups” tab.
Jackie Kojima works as an assistant teacher in the After School Japanese Immersion program at Punahou School and is a freelance writer. A gosei, she developed a passion for studying Japanese in her middle school years. She earned her bachelor’s degree in international business and marketing with a minor in Japanese from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa last year. In her free time, she enjoys singing, listening to podcasts and eating Korean food with her sister Jenny.