The first time I tried natto was years before I had even developed any kind of interest in Japan. I didn’t exactly like the taste, but I didn’t hate it either. The smell was a little off and repulsive, but it’s one of those strange foods that become addicting the more you eat it and smell it.
Natto is simply cooked soybeans that have been left out in a warm place to ferment. The origins of natto are not clear, but there is a story of a man on horseback leaving cooked soybeans in a straw sack on his horse’s luggage, with the pack being exposed to the warm sun and the horse’s body heat, fermenting the soybeans and turning them into natto.
The first actual recorded mention of the concept of natto was in 1405, in the diary of Noritoki Fujiwara. It was referred to as “itohiki daizu”, or “stringy soybeans”. The first time natto was actually called what we call it today was in a funny fictitious story called Shojin Gyorui Monogatari. It narrates a comedic battle to decide whether vegetarian ir\\or non-vegetarian foods are better.
Today, natto is most commonly eaten over rice, and it is typically seasoned with mustard and some sauce that is a mix of soy sauce, vinegar, and fish extract. Natto is thoroughly mixed with the seasonings and eaten over hot white rice. Some people will also add raw egg yolk on top and mix that together with the natto and rice, creating a goopy consistency of rice, runny egg and sticky, stringy natto. Although I am a vegan now, I have tried this bizarre combination in the past, and I have to say that it wasn’t all that bad.
There are some even more wacky combinations of natto out there. There was a craze started by some famous Japanese Youtubers a few years ago where they ate natto combined with foods that made for outrageous combinations. The one I remember the best was vanilla ice cream and natto. Although I have never tried this mix, it was reportedly not bad. If you ever come to Japan, don’t stray away from this common Japanese staple and try some!