No trip to Japan can ever be completed without trying Natto. So, where you can get the best Natto in Japan? We will tell you.
Here are the top places to get the best Natto:
- Mito, Ibaraki (The Natto Capital)
- Matsu-ya (Restaurant Chain)
- Ootoya (Food Chain)
- Kabe no Ana (Restaurant Chain)
- Kappa Sushi (Kaiten-Zushi)
- Tenkaippin (Restaurant Chain)
- Ikejiri-Oohashi, Sendaiya (Food Store)
- Convenience Stores (Easiest Option)
If you are foreign to Japanese cuisine and have been hearing a lot about Natto, read this guide to know everything about it. Who knows if the food that gets the cold shoulder from foreigners because of the repugnant smell, and weird sticky texture — could become your next favorite?
Natto is considered a superfood, par on the level with kimchi and sauerkraut. So, why not risk a little and see if it truly lives up to all the hype? Let’s explore Natto in-depth.
What is Natto?
The diet of an average Japanese citizen contributes a lot towards how healthy they are. And the world is slowly starting to take notice.
We are not just talking about a bowl of miso soup or some fresh mochi, or even the all-time favorite of college students everywhere – the holy grail of dorm food – ramen. Japan has a lot more to offer when it comes to the culinary challenge, and Natto is one of the foods that will challenge you.
Fermented foods are always in the grey area due to the risky nature of the taste and texture. They can be often so vile that you could swear off fermented products altogether.
One of the best, or dare we say, worst villains in the world of fermented foods is Surströmming, a Swedish fermented fish that smells so bad, people throw up at the sight of them.
Before you chalk off Natto to the same category, let’s see what it is. In the simplest terms, they are fermented soybeans. It doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
As with any fermented food, the main appeal is probiotic. Natto is full of good bacteria that help keep your intestines clean and bowel movement regular. The benefits of probiotic foods are undeniable, and Natto has gained a lot of popularity in recent years for being a superfood.
The beans are fermented with a type of Bacillus subtilis bacteria, and it is considered a highly healthy soy product.
So why is there so much divide about this food?
The smell of Natto is often compared to stinky cheese. On a scale of ‘Why would you do this to yourself,’ and ‘this smells delicious!’ – Natto is very close to the former. This is at least to people who are not quite familiar with fermented food or are experiencing Natto for the first time.
Why do people still eat it? As we said, this is an absolute superfood. The nutrition of the stinky bean dish is unparalleled, and it is known to protect against heart disease. When you include this in your diet, you add a high-quality source of nutrients that you won’t get otherwise. Especially if you are a vegan, and deficient in many vital nutrients, Natto can be your getaway to perfect health. It is even known to cure stress.
Besides, a lot of people eat this because it tastes great with rice, which is another extremely popular staple in Japanese households, and they are super cheap as well.
We believe now you are starting to see why Natto happens to be the darling of millions of people around the world.
Where Did It Come From?
Like all fermented or weird food, we have this question for Natto. How does one discover that letting beans stew with some bacteria is going to make it taste A-one, and be great for heart health as well? The story behind Natto is wrapped in layers of mystery.
There is no telling exactly how this was discovered, but the consensus is that someone cooked up some soybeans and wrapped them in straw, where it fermented for some time. They ended up eating a chunk of it, and thought, ‘Hmm, not bad.’ Thus, Natto was born.
The story comes from the Ibaraki Prefecture in Japan, in the city of Mito. A military commander named Minamoto and his people boiled up some soybeans to feed the horses and wrapped the leftover stuff in straw to make it easy for carrying.
When they opened the straws the next time to feed the horses, they discovered that the beans have changed texture, color, and smell. It has become sticky and kind of stringy. So, a brave soldier tried some on and liked them quite a lot.
The commander agreed and enjoyed the beans quite a lot. In fact, the word Natto in Japanese literally means ‘beans for the general’.
What’s up with the Texture?
The texture of Natto does not seem pleasant at the first viewing. It’s kind of gooey and sticky. But this is simply the result of the bacteria breaking down the proteins in the beans to make glutamic acid.
This acidic substance makes long chain-like bonds which makes the texture of Natto so stringy. It is quite known as an umami component and more famously found in kelp. Extremely healthy, just looks a bit suspicious.
Now that we got out of the way, let’s come to the most important information you have been waiting for. You have read about Natto, seen what it looks like, know what to expect in terms of smell and consistency. You want to have a taste of your own. Where do you get some authentic Natto, and what kind of dishes can you get to eat with it?
Let’s start with the most convenient answer for the top places to get Natto.
Best Places to Get Natto
1. Mito, Ibaraki (The Natto Capital)
Also known as the Natto capital, Mito in Ibaraki is one city where you can find plenty of shops that sell various types of Natto. Out of all of them, Wara Natto is a highly popular Natto variety that is wrapped in rice straw.
You can find Wara Natto in various outlets across the city. Some of the locations you should look for include Kairaku-en Park, and Yamasa Fish Market.
Although you can find Mito Natto in Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, the dish sold at Ibaraki Prefecture is one of its kind, and that’s because of the rich history.
As the Joban trail line connecting Mito with Tokyo started operating in 1900, sellers started selling Natto in large amounts to the travelers arriving at the station.
As a result, travelers took the dish back and shared it with their friends, and family. The word spread quickly, and this is how Mito Natto became popular in no time.
2. Matsu-ya (Restaurant Chain)
Although straw Natto is highly popular, if you want to try another variety of Natto that is not served in dried rice straw, you better visit restaurants owned by the Matsu-ya food chain. Basically, it is a beef bowl chain that serves Natto in a bowl, and this is definitely worth a try.
For starters, Matsu-ya is already pretty much on the social media map because of its famous gyūdon beef bowls. So if spot a Matsu-ya around you, do hop in for enjoying tasty breakfast for around 400 Yen. As a part of their morning set, they serve a whole combination of titillating options including miso soup, raw egg, white rice, and Natto. Tasty and healthy, indeed!
3. Ootoya (Food Chain)
Similar to Matsu-ya, Ootoya is another Japanese food chain that is known for serving authentic traditional Japanese food, including Natto.
Ootoya’s Hanabi Don bowl is one of the most popular items that you should try. It comes with high-quality sashimi, Natto, chopped okra, and grated Japanese yam. The bowl looks just as stunning as it sounds and presents a mix of popular flavors that anyone can enjoy.
Serving Natto over rice is Ootoya’s specialty. This is then mixed with several other ingredients to enhance or complement the taste. The various dishes available with Natto over rice can be eaten for lunch or dinner and have a complete assortment of miso soup, pickled vegetables.
The main bowl is not much unlike the Hanabi don, and contains high-grade tuna. There are seaweed and a raw egg, which is a staple.
If you are not into slimy foods, this combination might taste a bit weird to you. Especially considering the fact that this bowl combines all the sticky ingredients in one place, including okra.
The bowl itself is a popular choice for how healthy and full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants it is. If you are a first-timer and not the biggest fan of sticky food texture, watch out for this one.
4. Kabe no Ana (Restaurant Chain)
Kabe no Ana restaurants serve a Japanese Italian infusion that you will never forget. Namely, the combination of Japanese and Italian sounds impossible. But when you top it off with Natto pasta, it might seem outright outrageous. However, if you look at the bowl of Natto pasta, it looks pretty appetizing.
It is balanced with some salted roe, squid, and other toppings. So, you get a healthy mix of all your favorite Japanese dishes, with an Italian twist.
The bowls of Natto pasta look wholesome and come with a side of seaweed and pickled vegetables. It is a topping that you can separate or even mix in with the pasta and eat all together. Whatever your style is, we believe you will enjoy Asian fusion quite a lot.
5. Kappa Sushi (Kaiten-Zushi Chain)
First things first – what is a Kaiten-Zushi Chain? Basically, these are sushi restaurants where food is served from a conveyor belt. Kappa Sushi is one major chain highly popular among kids due to the involved fantasy.
Although the chain serves a variety of food including sushi, fried foods, noodles, and more – their Natto Sushi is highly popular. So, it is only natural that one of the most popular Japanese food will be infused in fiction with another. Natto sushi is pretty easy on the eyes. You can spot these restaurants in all major cities including Katsushika City, Kanagawa, and Gunma.
If you are a food lover, you might also have spotted these restaurants in the US. There are many authentic Kappa Sushi places you can try your luck into. You might have seen the videos of big Japanese restaurants with food making turns on conveyor belts, that’s Kappa sushi. The Natto sushi they have is delicious.
6. Tenkaippin (Restaurant Chain)
Tenkaippin is another popular food chain you will be able to locate easily in Japan. As the restaurant specializes in Ramen, they serve an exclusive Natto variety.
If you have tried natto with rice and want something special, Tenkaippin’s offering consisting of ramen and Natto is a safe bet. The first and original restaurant was opened in the city of Kyoto and it remains a worldwide known name today. They have many styles of ramen that you can incorporate into your choice of Natto bowl depending on preference.
We promise you; this could be a worthwhile experience. The taste of ramen with the spicy sauce and toppings is already something that will distract you from the smell of natto. You can try out the soft topping individually, or mix it in the ramen to get a richer texture
7. Ikejiri-Oohashi, Sendaiya (Food Store)
At this point in our Natto journey, we feel you are prepared for anything. If anything, you have developed a taste for Natto, and Sendaiya can be the ultimate stop where you can eat all you want.
So far, we have talked about restaurant food chains, but now we will be talking about a food store located in between Sangenjaya and Shibuya. Also called Natto Factory Sendaiya, the main store is situated in Yamanashi and they have been producing Natto for around 50 years now.
Although the main store deserves your attention, we will introduce you to All-You-Can-Eat Natto offered by their Ikejiri-Oohashi store.
All-You-Can-Eat Natto is not recommended for the faint of heart, and we suggest you try out some of the other delicacies to build your tolerance or at least gauge your reaction to the marvel that is Natto.
So, what’s the hype about All-You-Can-Eat Natto?
This is a complete meal and has more Natto than you will ever need. The set is complete with a bowl of rice, miso soup, some sort of seasonal vegetable dish. There is a simmered dish called nimono and pickles that come at the side to enhance the taste of the whole experience.
When you are opting for this set, they will give you two Natto recipes to try in the beginning. There is a long list of offerings available for you to pick from. If you can finish off the two Natto dishes you have selected, you can choose another two.
They will keep bringing out Natto dishes as soon as you can finish them. Even though the Natto is free, remember that you have to pay extra for the rice or soup. So, you might want to start rationing off in the beginning until you know this will be your last bowl of Natto. If you can eat Natto without rice or soup, more power to you.
This is recommended for a pro, which is why we have made a special entry towards the bottom because the whole Natto experience needs to be told for you to understand what you get. There is Edamame Natto you can try. The bigger the beans are, the lesser the slime. The Edamame actually tastes really fresh and subtle which you won’t get with your normal Natto.
And remember, there are a total of 36 packs of natto in this set. If you are planning for this challenge, make sure you have an empty stomach before you visit.
Sendaiya Offers a Whole Variety of Natto
In Sendaiya, you will be in for a treat, because it is a natto lovers’ paradise. If you are here, you know what you are looking for already. So, let’s start with the most convenient option, which is the vending machine. These machines placed outside the shop carry all kinds of Natto you can buy if you don’t want to sit in or are looking for a quick snack.
That is not all, Sendaiya has taken the classic Natto and made it into foods that you have been eating regularly for a long time. If savory is not your taste, you will surely like some of the Natto sweets they have in the shop. Or even the most innocuous donuts are made from Natto, which lends them a unique taste and texture.
8. Convenience Stores (Easiest Option)
If you simply don’t want to hunt for the food chains mentioned above or you simply want to get Natto without a lot of traveling, you can get them at every single convenience store in Japan. This is nothing to be astonished about since the Japanese people tend to eat Natto for breakfast, a lot.
There are millions of people who eat this as a breakfast dish, like cereals, eggs, or slices of bacon. You will get 4 packs of Natto for 100 Yen, which is less than a dollar. Quite cheap and nourishing.
If you are buying from the supermarket, here are a couple of pointers. There are a few varieties of Natto. The mild-tasting Natto which is delivered in a tropical flavonoid, anthocyanin, happens to come from black soybeans. In the beginning, this could be a good choice.
The flavonoid has antioxidant properties, which will keep you up and running and reverse signs of aging. You will usually get a packet of sauce and mustard as toppings, which you can mix at home. Pair this with a bowl of plain rice and you have a delicious breakfast. You don’t need anything else to have a complete, healthy meal other than these two things.
So, are you all set to try Natto?