Natto! Fermented Soybeans
“Do you eat natto?” is a question Japanese ask foreigners. Natto is nebe-nebe : sticky, slimy, slippery, and scary. I dare you to eat natto; it smells like stinky socks, ammonia, bleu cheese, or dark coffee.

Natto (納豆) is one of the few soyfoods which has always been called by its native name in every European language, probably because no equivalent could be found. Most fermented soy products are cultured with molds, but natto is made by fermenting cooked whole soybeans with a bacterial starter (Bacillus natto).
Information from SoyInfo Center, where you can read an exhausive article about the history of natto in Japan.

Natto was traditionally made using rice straw which naturally contains the necessary bacteria. Cooked soy beans were fermented in containers lined with rice straw, or individual portions were wrapped in rice-straw packets.

The traditional straw wrapping intrigued me. To try it I took a good handful of 3 foot tall grass, twisted it in the middle, and brought the ends together. Tied. Then I separated the rice straws (grass stems) like bars on a birdcage and placed a good bunch of old cold rice in lieu of cooked soybeans. Re-arranged the bars and the package neatly (well, the grass was sloppy—should have more grass stems) holds its contents. I can imagine people making many of these packages all at once, then filling them with cooked soybeans to ferment.

Soy beans can be cultured at home to make natto, using a package of purchased natto as a starter, similar to the way you can make yogurt by using some yogurt as a starter.
Natto bacillus spores are available online or in health food stores. The powder is added to cooked soybeans to ferment.

I can easily find frozen natto in most of the Asian stores in my midwest town. The packages usually contain 3 or four containers (1 serving per container). Each container includes two flavor packets: kareshi (mustard), and shoyu (soy sauce and some other flavoring). Set those aside while the natto thaws. Poke a few holes in the plastic covering the beans so they get some air. When the natto is thawed, stir it vigorously so the sticky substance (glutamic acid polymers), forms long silvery gossamer threads. Stir in the mustard and shoyu then eat.

Many Japanese people eat natto gohan (natto on rice) for breakfast, with miso soup, and tsukemono.
For the uninitiated, Ms. Shimbo, the author of The Japanese Kitchen, which I’m using for my Japanese cooking blog project) suggests trying natto in miso soup—the viscous quality disappears in the soup.

I’m very fond of black bean
soup(O i’m
fond of black
bean soup
Yes i’m very fond
of black bean soup)But
i don’t disdain
a beef-

Gimme gin&bitters to
open my
eyes(O gimme
bitters to open
my eyes
Yes gimme gin&bitters
to open my eyes)But
i’ll take straight rum as
a night-

Nothing like a blonde for
ruining the
blues(O nothing
like a
blonde for ruining
the blues
Yes nothing like a blonde
for ruining the blues)But
i use redheads for
the tooth-

Parson says a sinner will
perish in the
flames(O parson
says a
sinner will perish
in the flames
Yes Parson says a sinner
will perish in the flames)But
i reckon that’s better
than freez-

Everybody’s dying to be
else(O every
dying to be some
one else
Yes everybody’s dying
to be someone else)But
I’ll live my life if
it kills

~Edward Estlin Cummings

What to eat with natto:
From What Japan Thinks, where readers answer polls about things Japan and can later read the results, these are the top ten (Google translated) favorite toppings:
Green onion, Egg (raw and probably a quail’s egg),Okra,Macrophyll (shiso/perilla/beefsteak plant), Radish (grated daikon), Yam (toro: grated yamaimo/nagaimo/mountain yam), Bonito (かつお, katsuo) flakes), Kimchi, Boiled for Norinori (Seaweed), Meat Plums (Shredded dried plum (梅肉, bainiku).
Chowhound has a many more ideas:
Mayonnaise, Minced tsukemono, Ketchup, Salt, Umeboshi/ground sesame, Wasabi/dashi soy, Chopped tomato, Grated ginger, Chili oil, Chinese hot sauce/sesame oil, Grated daikon/ponzu, French dressing, Shiso dressing, Dashi soy (men-tsuyu dipping sauce), Peanut butter, Avocado & soy sauce, Arame or hijiki (plus toasted sesame oi), shiso chiffonade, Shitaki, Teeny amount of very finely chopped garlic or garlic chives, Lemon juice
Other suggestion include adding natto to these common preparations:
Mixed into miso soup, Mixed into Japanese style omelettes (slightly sweetened), Mixed with spaghetti, shoyu, and butter, Curry topped w/natto, Natto toast (w/mayo, cheese, etc.), stuffed into abura-age and grilled, Top on okonomiyaki, Pizza topping, Natto wontons (Mix natto with shoyu, green onions and yellow mustard. Wrap with a wonton wrapper and deep fry!), Stuffed inside an onigiri rice ball, On top of hiyayakko (cold tofu with little grated ginger on the side), Mixed in a cold soba noodle salad (with the toasted sesame oil, touch of shoyu, chiffonade of shiso, finely chopped green onion, and vinegar to taste), sushi with this recipe in Japanese (use Google translate): Audio plum rolled behind natto ● 梅きゅう納豆裏巻き, (check out other recipes on the Yamada Foods site, too!), and Fried rice:

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