Fad or Future

The marmite of Japan: fermented soybeans called natto

Could a Westernised version of this healthy eat make it more appealing to UK consumers?

11 July 2018

There’s a fine line between putrid and pleasant. And a Japanese food called natto treads this line.

To explain simply, natto is fermented soybeans.

It is sold in supermarkets in Japan, but its smell can be off-putting – described as somewhere between cheese and socks that have been worn too long. The texture is also interesting: a combination of slippery and sticky, while the flavour gives off a savoury, salty and slight barbecue taste.

Traditionally, natto is mixed with spicy mustard and a sweet soy sauce called tare that is often provided in the packet itself and then eaten. Natto is also added to rice, pickles or eggs, and can be found in many breakfast dishes across Japan, where it’s either loved or hated.

In the UK, natto is not commonly known, let alone eaten, but can be seen in Japanese restaurants, which serve it as part of a sushi dish or simply with rice or miso soup.

Despite the tricky texture and smell, it does have health benefits – and let’s face it, the Japanese do have the longest life expectancy in the world.

So a company has stepped up to make natto more appealing to the Western palate.

Playing with the product

Enter mamenoka, a variant of natto specifically developed to appeal to the non-Japanese market and created by a company called Asaichiban. Changing the enzyme when fermenting the soybeans made the natto less stringy, less sticky and reduced the odour – three factors that have traditionally been a barrier to increasing exports. 

The innovation was spearhead by Ogawara Kazunori, boss of Asaichiban, which was founded in Ibaraki, the geographical home of natto. Kazunori persuaded the Industrial Technology Institute of Ibaraki Prefecture to work on developing mamenoka, which translates as ‘fragrant beans’ in English.

The result was a product with around 25% fewer strings that was estimated to be a third less sticky. The beans come apart more easily, so are simpler to eat with a fork or spoon. 

Mamenoka is being introduced to the UK at Hyper Japan, Harro Food’s Japan Food Show, which is being held at Olympia London from July 13-15.

While natto, let alone mamenoka, is hardly known in the UK, Maki Itazu, deputy managing director of importer and distributor Harro Foods, tells Food Spark that the company is excited to see people’s response to it at the show, where it will be introduced to buyers and restaurant owners, as well as the public.

“Today, Asaichiban offer two varieties of mamenoka: red and white. Red is an organic product made from US soybeans that has a longer-than-normal fermentation period of 24 hours to enhance flavour and nutritional value,” he said.

“The Asaichiban white is also organic and made from US soybeans and has a shorter 12-hour fermentation period, bringing a more mellow flavour to the product as well as a lighter taste.”

A tube that contains a paste of natto has also been developed, which is aimed at chefs looking at ways to use this ingredient beyond Japanese dishes. Jinbo Yoshinaga, head chef at the Hatake Aoyama restaurant in Tokyo, says that natto is a good fit with French cuisine and goes well with cheese, butter, and fresh cream.

Health hitters

Health-focused products are predicted to be the big hitters at the Japan Food Show, from gluten-free gyoza to panko crumbs, vegan ramen stock, seaweed seasonings and green tea noodles.

Natto has also got its own claims to health fame. Not only is it good for the gut as its fermented, but more specifically the enzyme found in natto, nattokinase, can thin the blood and contains high amounts of vitamin K2 and a polyamine that offers anti-aging properties (so they say).

Will you be sticking to natto, Sparkie?


Sparkie says:

Fermented foods are seeing a small rise in popularity but natto is also pretty low down the scale as far as consumer appeal goes. Small adjustments to texture are unlikely to be enough to generate mass appeal.

Something a little more friendly like the paste could provide a way of introducing it to new people, but it would need to have some real benefits to make it worthwhile. The blood-thinning properties of nattokinase is interesting, but this is obviously a double-edged sword, and anyone with issues in this area could be affected negatively if natto were to gain mass appeal.

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