THE GOCHISO GOURMET: That looks … delicious?

OK, the following food subject will either elicit disgust (probably the majority of readers) or set off that Pavlovian response (probably the minority of readers) since I’m sure everyone knows what natto is. Yes, those beans with the pungent odor and slimy texture that leave “threads” from your mouth to the plate. That’s if you can even get yourself to put it in your mouth. I know, that was my first reaction too. Who would eat something that reeked of toe-jam with the consistency of hana-buttah (snot). I mean, I don’t think the human organism is pre-hardwired to desire smelly foods with questionable textures, so I’ll bet everyone — including those who now crave natto — had that same initial reaction. Eat what? Try what?

I used to feel that way — “not getting me to put that in my mouth” — but I’m a convert now. Well, maybe a semi-convert. It all started with Marukai’s ahi and nattochirashi sushi bento. Cubes of fresh local tuna mixed with natto and sliced fukujinzuke over sushi rice. Somehow the mixture of pickles and silky fish are perfectly complemented by the earthy natto. Then of course there’s Gyotaku’s (www.gyotakuhawaii.com) nattochos or Japanese inspired nachos with wonton chips in place of tortilla chips covered with natto, spicy ahi poke, avocado, green onions and daikon sprouts drizzled with yamaimo (like the natto isn’t slimy enough). I could have this dish with a tokkuri of sake for my whole dinner! But I do enjoy natto with other players involved to enhance the eating experience. It’s not that I haven’t tried natto simply placed on a bowl of hot rice — I have, but when consumed alone, natto simply tastes like used coffee grounds, to me at least. Not really bad, but not really good.

Natto’s Origin
No one really knows the origin of natto. Some references say it was created back in the 500 to 600 AD range. Others credit the Minamoto clan for accidentally creating it after a surprise attack. Whatever the origins, you know that the first person who consumed it had to be hungry, like starve to death or eat it hungry. And I’m sure it was created by accident. Steamed beans wrapped in straw that was accidentally misplaced. After several days of fermentation, voila! “You gonna eat that?” “No, let’s get Mikey to try it!”

But its production is simple. Steamed soybeans combined with Bacillus subtilis, then fermented for anywhere for a day (if it’s hot) to several days in colder climates and you have young natto. Refrigerate for a week to let those “strings” develop, then enjoy. The original natto was produced in rice straw as this straw naturally harbors the essential microorganism Bacillus subtilis. Commercial production omits the rice straw and simply inoculates the steamed beans with B. subtilis culture.

Natto Nutrition
Because the soybean is fermented by the bacterial culture, it undergoes a pre-digestion of the bean proteins, making the amino acids readily available for human digestion. Therefore, you absorb more of the soybean protein, compared to simply consuming the plain steamed soybeans on their own. This fermentation process also creates pyrazine, which gives natto its pungent aroma. Interestingly enough, pyrazine is also found in some of the “stinky” cheeses. Other than just giving natto that pungent odor, it also may help reduce blood clot formation.

Natto also contains a serine protease type of enzyme called nattokinase (it actually is named as such in scientific journals), which has a direct fibrinolytic activity to help dissolve established blood clots as well as inhibit the plasma protein PAI-1 (plasminogen activator inhibitor 1), which also helps to reduce clot formation.

And since natto does come from soybeans, it has all those potentially wonderful isoflavones like daidzein and genistein that may help maintain a better cholesterol profile, ease menopausal symptoms and potentially reduce certain cancers. And you thought you were just eating a slimy, smelly bean.

Natto Day
I never realized that natto had a day! But it was on July 10 (na represents the number seven, while to represents the number 10, hence 7/10 or July 10). And in celebration of that day, The Pig and the Lady along with local food writer/blogger Mari Taketa organized a pop-up dinner highlighting natto. Every dish with natto! And since I’ve always enjoyed the dishes prepared by the Le Clan, I knew I couldn’t miss this event.

The menu looked like this:

Natto froth on oyster_Web

Natto froth on oyster. photo by Ryan Tastumoto

Natto Vichyssoise
Wheatgrass, sprouts
Oyster
Natto froth, green apple, guava kombucha

Burnt Shallots

Charred shallots with natto. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Charred shallots with natto. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Tofu, black garlic, duck fat, tarragon
Natto jus

Caramelized Pork Belly
Charred natto, natto chicharron, banana
Lemon balm

Confit Egg Yolk
Gouda mousseline, dried scallop
Smoked date, chive
Natto and seaweed brioche
Mango
Natto granite, yogurt

Natto Andagi

Natto andagi with natto brittle. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Natto andagi with natto brittle. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Guinness anglaise, fig, natto brittle

The vichyssoise was a last minute substitution as the original menu listed a panna cotta with wheat grass and sprouts — perhaps the cream never truly set, or someone forgot to chill it long enough, but it was a nice starter with richness upfront, herbal flavor in the middle and unmistakable natto on the back end. The oyster appetizer tasted like your traditional oyster on the half shell as the natto froth simply gave it a soybean essence. But the burnt shallots! Like slightly charred baby onions with sweet, savory and rich flavors with the earthy flavor of the natto tying everything together! The pork belly was also wonderful, but the epiphany in this dish was the natto chicharrons. Somehow Chef Le created a savory chip from natto! Who cares about Lay’s Cheesy Garlic Bread flavor, give me a bag of natto chicharrons! The last savory course didn’t really highlight the flavor of natto, but a runny egg yolk and cheese sauce will hook me all the time.

The first dessert was very refreshing especially after several earthy courses, but once again, Le created another epiphany with his natto andagi (since it was Obon season) with natto brittle fused with a Guinness anglaise sauce. Stunning!

So the next time you get that natto craving, reach for more than a bowl of hot rice and pickles to pair with those pungent beans. Get creative! Natto refried beans scooped from natto chips? Or perhaps natto and ume jelly finger sandwiches? Or natto and braised teriyaki beef stuffed into a musubi? Or even a natto and fresh ginger ice cream? I’m already looking forward to next year’s Natto Day dinner … perhaps I’ll even bring a natto dessert of my own creation!

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

Speak Your Mind

*

Kyplex Cloud Security Seal - Click for Verification