Ramen is one of those foods that just about everybody enjoys. In many ways, it’s a lot like pizza. There are so many different recipes and ingredients that everyone can get something they enjoy. Add chicken, beef, and all kinds of veggies, and you’ll have a filling meal that’s built to your taste.
Natto is not one of those foods. Its unique smell, taste, and texture put a lot of people off. Even in Japan, more than 30% of respondents tell pollsters that they don’t like it. No matter what your personal opinions, it’s one of those foods that you either love or you hate. If ramen is like pizza, then natto ramen is like Hawaiian pizza – either it makes your mouth water, or it makes you lose your appetite.
But what is natto, and what does it taste like? More to the point, how can you integrate it into a bowl of ramen? Keep reading, and find out!
What Is Natto, Exactly?
Natto is a traditional dish that you can buy in any Japanese convenience store. Here in the U.S., it can be harder to find; in most areas, you’ll have to go to a Japanese food store. You aren’t likely to find it in your local grocery store’s ethnic section.
This food is notorious for its slimy texture and powerful odor, which many people say smells like used gym socks. However, it also has a number of health benefits. Remember those 30% of Japanese who don’t like natto? It turns out that half of them eat it anyway, because it’s so incredibly healthy. Nowadays, it’s as much a part of the Japanese breakfast as cereal is in the American breakfast. That said, it’s a popular snack, and can be eaten at any time of day.
Natto is actually a pretty simple dish. It’s made from soybeans, which are boiled, then inoculated with a bacteria called Bacillus subtilis, and fermented for a day. Historically, this was done by covering the boiled beans with straw, which contained some of the bacteria. The original discovery was most likely accidental, like the discovery of yogurt. Regardless, natto is now a staple of Japanese cuisine.
Early Natto and Chinese Douchi
Like many traditional foods, the origins of natto are shrouded in mystery. According to one legend, Prince Shotoku discovered soybean fermentation back in the 600s, when he wrapped some beans in straw to feed his horse. Soon, people started eating the fermented beans; they enjoyed the flavor, and natto soon became popular throughout Japan.
There’s another legend that says that Natto was invented in the 1000s, when a samurai named Minamoto no Yoshiie went on a military campaign in northern Japan. His troops were boiling some beans to feed their horses, but their enemies launched a surprise attack against their camp. In their hurry to pack up, Minamoto’s men didn’t have time to feed their horses. The beans remained packed in straw bags for a few days, and they fermented. The hungry soldiers ate the fermented beans, they enjoyed them, and they became popular.
The most likely story for natto’s origin is that, like many things, it crossed over to Japan from China. Long before any confirmed historical existence of natto, there was a popular Chinese food called douchi. Douchi are soybeans that are fermented and salted. They can then be processed in a variety of ways. For example, they can be mashed into a paste, or dried out and ground into a seasoning.
That said, douchi and natto are very different foods. Because of the salt content, douchi has a much saltier flavor, which is why it can be used as a seasoning. Douchi is also made with black or yellow soybeans, while natto is only made with yellow soybeans.
Douchi itself became popular in Japan in the first millennium BC. This is the same time when soybean and rice cultivation were exported from China to Japan. As the Japanese began mining their own salt, they had everything they needed to create douchi. In fact, it’s likely that natto was created accidentally by someone trying to make douchi. Salt was valuable at the time, and was even used as money in many parts of the world. If you tried to make douchi, but didn’t have enough salt, you could end up with a batch of natto.
Of course, modern natto isn’t made with straw. In the early 1900s, Japanese scientists isolated the Bacillus subtilis bacterium, which allowed them to create a starter culture. Nowadays, the culture can simply be aerosolized and sprayed over a bunch of boiled beans. Left overnight, the beans will ferment, and you have a fresh batch of natto.
As we mentioned, natto is famous for its health benefits. In particular, it contains a lot of vitamin K2 – more per ounce than any other food on earth. K2 is a lesser-known vitamin, but it’s still essential to our bodies. Among other things, it’s necessary for the health of our bones and hearts.
Vitamin K2 is naturally-occurring and fat-soluble. However, it cannot be produced naturally by the body. You have to get it from your food, and unlike vitamin K1, it’s hard to get on a vegan diet. Vitamin K1 is found in all kinds of vegetables, from broccoli to asparagus. Vitamin K2, on the other hand, is only found in animal-based and fermented foods.
Vitamin K2 is used by the body to transfer calcium from one area to another. It’s essential for healthy teeth and bones, and for reducing the risk of conditions like osteoporosis. It also helps to keep your skin elastic, since it keeps calcium from sticking in elastin fibers and stiffening them.
Cooking Ramen With Natto
Natto is a versatile ingredient that can be used in a couple of different ways. One method is to create your own natto paste and mix it into the broth. You can do this with a mortar and pestle and a little bit of elbow grease. Or, you can use a small blender to make things a little bit easier.
Either way, you’ll be left with a thick paste that you can mix into your broth. It goes great with miso paste, to create a thick sauce for your noodles.
Alternatively, you can just dump the natto into your broth, as you would with any other topping. Then, you can take little bits of it as you munch away at your noodles. This takes less work, and it’s great if you enjoy the texture of natto if you want something you can sink your teeth into.
No matter how you add it to your recipe, natto pairs best with a spicy ramen, or one that’s otherwise very flavorful. Because it has such an intense flavor of its own, it’s a poor choice for smoother, milder recipes, since it will overpower the other ingredients.
One thing to keep in mind when you’re preparing natto ramen is the temperature. When natto is heated above 158 degrees, some of the nutrients start to break down, so you’re not getting the full health benefit. Wait for your boiled broth to cool for a few minutes before you add your natto to the bowl.
Check out our Youtube short showing how we made our natto ramen here.
If you’re a fan of natto, adding it to your next bowl of ramen is a no-brainer. Even if you’re not a fan, you might still want to eat some, if only for the health benefits.
Regardless of your recipe, a good bowl of ramen starts with a high-quality noodle. The next time you get bitten by a ramen craving, take the time to get the right noodles. Mike’s Mighty Good noodles are steamed, not fried, and they’re made with simple ingredients. Pair your favorite flavor with some natto, and you’ve got the beginnings of a delicious meal.