History of Natto and Its Relatives - Page 3

by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi

A Chapter from the Unpublished Manuscript, History of Soybeans and
Soyfoods, 1100 B.C. to the 1980s


©Copyright 2004 Soyinfo Center, Lafayette, California

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Popular Types of Japanese Natto . As of 1982 there were a number of popular types of natto on the market in Japan, in additional to regular natto ( itohiki natto ). They are listed here in approximate descending order of popularity:

Mito Natto. A small-bean natto made with small-seeded soybeans; it originated prior to 1600 but was modernized and commercialized in the 1880s in the city of Mito in Ibaragi prefecture north of Tokyo.

Split Roasted Soybean Natto (Hikiwari Natto). Made from split, dehulled, roasted soybeans. Produced in Aomori prefecture. The split beans make the natto easier to chew.

Finger Lickin' Natto (Yukiwari Natto). Made since early times in Yamagata prefecture by mixing minced natto with rice koji and salt, then fermenting the mixture at 25-30*C for 15 days. Some producers substitute shoyu and (kombu) dashi (seaweed soup stock) for the salt, then incubate at 30-33*C for 40 days. The double fermentation product has the stickiness of natto and the sweetness of koji or natto miso. It contains 47.9% moisture, 14.3% protein, 9.3% salt. Made in the northeast prefectures. A related product is called Natto Hishio, made by mixing 5 parts by weight of natto with 4 of koji and 1 of salt. Kombu, gingerroot, dried daikon, and/or salt pickled vegetables are sometimes also added. It is fermented in a crock under a pressing lid for 2-3 weeks until ripened. Ohta (1975) states that the early, noncommercialized form of Yukiwari Natto was Goto Natto, made with natto, koji, and salt, all fermented for 1 month. Since the middle of the Edo period (about 1735) it has been made in Yamagata prefecture, mostly in farmhouses. It is widely served over rice, mixed with a popular type of diced miso pickle. One commercial manufacturer is Maruyome Shokuhin in Yonezawa city, Yamagata prefecture. Each of the above products looks like Finger Lickin' Miso.

Dried Salty Natto (Hoshi Natto). This non-sticky natto with its whitish, flour-dusted dry surface and moderately salty flavor, looks like raisins coated with flour and can be eaten like peanuts. The exact method of manufacture is not well known, but apparently stringy natto is soaked in concentrated salt water (or sprinkled with table salt), left for 15-20 hours, spread in a thin layer on large trays, perhaps dusted with wheat flour, then sun dried. For mechanical heat drying, dry air (less than 20% moisture) at 40*C is circulated through the natto until the latter's moisture content drops to 8% or less. This type of product is said to have been first developed in the late 1500s by Kiyomasa Kato in Kumamoto prefecture on Kyushu, Japan's southernmost main island, far from the traditional center of traditional natto production. The product was traditionally made in midwinter and kept to be used until planting time. One of the products Kato made was called Hoshi korumame . It was later made nationwide, sometimes with added ginger or red chilies, indicating a tie with salted soy nuggets. Starting in the early 1900s regular natto sold in this area, scooped out of large mat wrappers by itinerant vendors came to be called kuromame ("fragrant beans" in that dialect), but by the 1980s a tasty dried salted natto brand-named Korumame was being made by Marumiya Co. in Kumamoto city. Similar products were also diced and used as an ingredient in dry seasoning mixtures ( furikake ).

Natto in the Prefectures . A number of Japanese prefectures are known for their unique varieties of natto. Listed alphabetically by prefecture, these include: Aomori prefecture's Hikiwari Natto, made from split, roasted soybeans. Chiba prefecture's Toozoo, made from natto fermented with the cooking liquid from persimmons, dried daikon, salt, and koji; also Ozuto Natto, made in large rice straw wrappers. Fukushima prefecture's Momen Natto, made by wrapping cooked soybeans in a clean cotton bag, wrapping this in a reed mat ( mushiro ), and incubating it in a clean compost pile of straw and fallen leaves. Fukushima prefecture also makes Higan ("equinox") Natto, prepared during the cold months in an underground incubation hole, with snow piled over the top to help trap the heat. The natto, hung under the farmhouse eaves until the spring equinox, is blown by the cold winds, then eaten to help build strength for the busy farming season. Also in these parts a famous dish called Daraku Nabe ("degenerate/lazy one-pot cookery") is made by cooking Udon noodles in a big pot and serving them topped with natto. Gunma prefecture's Naisho mame (naisho means "secret"); the name derives from a humorous Rakugo story about a priest who made natto secretly in an underground incubator, then ate them alone, hidden from the young monks . . . but was discovered. Ibaragi prefecture's Mito Natto, made from small soybeans. Kumamoto prefecture (in Kyushu, southern Japan) makes Higo Natto, incubated buried in the earth. Leftovers are preserved by mixing them with salt and ground red chilies ( togarashi ), drying them, then dusting them with flour to make Hoshi Natto (dried natto) or Korumame. A product named Shiokara natto was also made using barley koji, soybeans (cracked in a mortar), kombu, and gingerroot. These were wrapped in a reed mat, fermented, then apparently salted. Saitama prefecture's hettsui natto ,incubated in the warm caldron ( hettsui ) once a year after making miso then served as a festive food. Yamagata's prefecture's Yukiwari Natto and Goto Natto, both types of finger lickin' natto.


Salt-free Soy Nuggets in China . In China, this product is called tan-shih in its mild form and kan-shih in its sweeter form. Although it is usually made with a mold, it differs from the typical soy nuggets (see Chapter 32) in that it is made without salt and is incubated wrapped in reeds, a close relative of straw. First described in the Ch'i-min yao-shu , it may an ancient relative of Japan's natto.

Joenkuk-jang and Damsue-jang in Korea . Also spelled Chungkuk-jang and Dambuk-jang, these are salted natto pastes. Each autumn, people in households throughout Korea make Joenkuk-jang. Soybeans are washed, soaked, and cooked until very tender, then placed in bowl ( Bacillus natto cultures is added in some cases), covered with a blanket, and placed on the warm Korean floor for 24-72 hours. When the product has a ripe, ammonia smell, salt, garlic, and red chilies are added and the mixture is chopped or mashed, then often fermented until winter, when it is consumed. Damsue-jang is made in the same way except that no spices are used (Wang and Lee 1978; Kim, personal communication). Nothing is known of the history of this product.

Thua Nao in Thailand . Reports by Dr. Malee Sundhagul et al. (1970, 1973 Ref??) have introduced the world to thua-nao, a fermented soyfood from northern Thailand that is sold or eaten in either of two forms, as cooked thua-nao paste or as thua-nao chips, both of which are made from raw thua-nao paste. Especially popular in areas where fish are scarce, they are used like fermented fish to flavor and thickening to curries, savory vegetable soups and chili-hot dishes. In some areas they are used as basic staples in the diet rather than merely as seasonings. To make thua-nao clean whole soybeans are soaked overnight, boiled for 3-4 hours, transferred to a bamboo basket lined with banana leaves, covered with additional banana leaves, exposed to sunlight, and fermented at 40-42*C for 2-3 days. The fermentation is activated by naturally occurring Bacillus subtilis bacteria. The raw thua-nao is mashed lightly with salt and, in most cases, garlic, onion, and red chilies to make raw thua-nao paste. Small portions of this are wrapped in banana leaves (in sausage shapes) and steamed at atmospheric pressure or roasted over an open fire for about 30 minutes to make cooked thua nao paste ( thua merk ), which is used as a seasoning with rice. Containing 52.5% moisture and 16.9% protein, it will keep for 2-3 days. For longer storage, raw thua-nao paste is formed into small balls (each 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter), which are pressed into paper-thin, 3-inch diameter rounds that are sun-dried to make thua-nao chips ( thua-kab ??). Containing 17.8% moisture and 36.8% protein, thua-nao chips will keep for about 6 months. Sundhagul et al. (1970) developed a modern method of preparing thua-nao, which was then dried, ground to a powder, and used to make a low-cost, high-protein food called "ferm-soy mix" containing 60% thua-nao powder, 20% fish meal, 6% iodized salt, plus red chilies, garlic powder, and onion powder (4%, 4%, and 3% each). The product can be mixed directly into rice or mixed with boiling water to make a cause?? or paste. Unfortunately no historical information or production statistics are available. Thua-nao is made on a village scale in northern and northeastern Thailand. Little is known about the history of this product.

Kinema in Darjeeling (India) and Southwest Nepal . The earliest known report on this product was published by Batra and Millner in 1976, but they misspelled the name as "kenima." Nothing of the food's early history is known, although it may be a relative of Chinese salt-free soy nuggets or it may have been introduced by Portuguese from Unnan before 1600. To make kinema, soybeans are soaked, dehulled, and boiled for 2-3 hours; 200 to 250-gram portions, inoculated by chance, are wrapped in large leaves (usually banana leaves) and incubated at 35-45*C for 48-72 hours, until the product becomes mucilaginous/sticky. The primary organism in the fermen­tation is Bacillus subtilis . The center of production and consumption is around Darjeeling in northeast India. It is also made and used in the low-lying warm valleys of southeast Nepal and Sikkim. Kinema is usually sold as an amorphous mass (like natto), although it sometimes comes in cakes (like tempeh). The product comes in two types; one is light brown and the other is lighter, a whitish brown. It is usually sold, scooped from a larger mass wrapped in leaves at stores selling vegetables. Kinema is usually deep-fried or pan-fried in small patties (without any added binder), then salted and served. It has a pleasant nutlike flavor. We have never heard of natto being deep-fried in Japan, except occasionally in tempura.

Sereh in Bali, Indonesia . This distant relative of natto is described in Chapter 39, Other Fermented Soyfoods.


Natto first became known in the West with the publication by the Japanese microbiologist Dr. K. Yabe of a research article "On the Vegetable Cheese, Natto," which was published in Tokyo in English in 1894 and in Germany in German in 1895. Many of the early European articles on natto drew their information from this publication and, mistakenly, propagated the idea that natto was a type of cheese. The first brief reference to natto by a European was by the German Senft in 1907. This was followed by a brief article about natto in 1910 in La Nature (Sept. 24 Ref??). In 1912 Li Yu-ying and Grandvoinnet in Paris referred to two types of natto: Tokyo Natto and Ping Ming Natto. The latter was apparently a type of soy nuggets; most of his information was from Yabe. Grimme (1914) mentioned natto in passing, as did Fuerstenberg (1917). Kempski (1923) described how to make natto. There were no significant articles published after that time, nor has any original research on natto ever been done in Europe. We know of no company that has ever produced natto commercially in Europe.

Yet it may be that the first large scale development and use of natto in the West was by the German army during World War II. This little-known chapter in natto's history bears furthers study. Dr. Ohta (1975) reported that the German army was said to have used soybeans imported from Manchuria to make smoked and dried natto, which they used in submarines and during their war in Greece.


In 1896 Trimble, in "Recent Literature on the Soja Bean," became the first American to mention natto, giving a summary of Yabe's article, with a brief description of natto's nutrients. Other recapitulations of Yabe's article were published by Abel of the USDA (1900), Oshima (1905), and Itano (1918). Muramatsu's excellent study "On the Preparation of Natto" (described earlier) appeared in English in 1912.

In 1923 in The Soybean , Piper and Morse devoted a full page to natto, drawing heavily on the work of Yabe, calling natto a "vegetable cheese," and including a nutritional analysis plus two excellent photographs of natto production in Japan. Later Morse (Dorsett and Morse 1928-31) studied natto production in Japan and recorded his observations in the log of their trip (p. 3015-18). He was the first Westerner to see natto and describe it. Soaked soybeans were steamed and boiled slowly for 8 hours, then two handfuls were wrapped in rice straw then incubated on shelves 18-24 inches below the ceiling at 40-45*C for 20-24 hours. The room was heated with charcoal fire pots. Photographs of the process were included. Also in 1923 Margaret Church of the USDA mentioned natto, noting that pure cultures of Bacillus mesentericus and B. vulgatus , the bacterial starter cultures, could be obtained from the Hokkaido Imperial University in Sapporo, Japan. A weakly proteolytic strain of bacteria was usually selected, but it hydrolyzed the soybean protein more rapidly that the shoyu mold. In 1927 Horvath discussed natto briefly. In 1933 Miller discussed natto in Hawaii, noting that the cooked and drained soybeans were placed on paper plates, covered with waxed paper. The plates were stacked one above the other in large wooden boxes, covered with rice straw mats, and kept at approximately 30*C for 35-36 hours. "The fermented product is covered with a gray, slimy substance that forms strings or threads when the beans are pulled apart, indicating good quality . . . Natto is also ground and made into soup with or without the addition of leafy vegetables, miso, and bonito."

In 1957 Mr. Shizuka Hayashi, managing director of the Japanese-American Soybean Institute in Tokyo, wrote a detailed article on "Manufacture of Natto" in the Soybean Digest , and explained that research was underway to determine why US soybeans were not considered suitable for natto production. In 1958 Dr. A.K. Smith of the USDA wrote about natto based on his visit to Japan. In 1963 Standal, at the University of Hawaii Department of Nutrition, did the first scientific research on natto by a Westerner. She found that the culture was gram-positive long-chain rods. She did nutritional analyses of both the wet and dry products, then used these in rat feeding experiments, which showed that the Net Protein Utilization (NPU) was 45.0 and 43.8 respectively (vs. 65.0 for tofu) and the PER was 1.52 and 1.00 (vs. 1.93 for tofu). In 1967 she found that natto had more tryptophan than most other soyfoods. In 1964 the first known commercial production of natto in the continental US was started by the Hinode Tofu Co. in Los Angeles. By 1982 they were making 5,000 packages a week. Hesseltine (1965) and Hesseltine and Wang (1972) did reviews of the literature on natto, but did not do any original research on it (as they had done on numerous other fermented soyfoods), perhaps because they doubted it would ever be widely accepted in the West. Hesseltine noted his reservations succinctly: "Natto doesn't look good and it smells terrible. The test of good natto is its sliminess."

The macrobiotic movement has done much to popularize the use of natto. Aihara (1972a) gave a 1-page description of natto and in Soybean Diet (1974), he gave the first known instructions for making natto at home and the first natto recipes in any Western language. Noboru Muramoto in California published information about natto and its preparation in his newsletter (Title?? Date??) and taught his students how to use natto to make self-leavening breads and how to make finger lickin' natto; 5 pounds of natto are mixed with 2 pounds of rice koji and 1 pound of salt, fermented for 2 weeks, then served in miso soup with taro, or atop brown rice or tofu. This delicious product may be the easiest way to introduce natto to the West. In about 1978 Charlie Kendall of Kendall Foods in Brookline, Massachusetts, became the first known Caucasian in the West to make natto commercially. His natto was served in various macrobiotic restaurants in Boston. The East West Journal published many natto recipes. Greenwood (1981) wrote:

Natto, the Limburger of soyfoods, is one of the strangest foods you'll ever encounter. It smells and tastes horrid the first time you try it. Goo and slimy threads stretch from small brown beans for as long as seven inches. But go ahead, try it a second time and you'll find it addictive. Natto is delicious! My children scramble for it.

She described how to make it and gave a recipe for natto condiment.

In The Book of Tofu (1975) Shurtleff and Aoyagi gave basic information about natto and included the two most popular Japanese recipes; a topping for rice and a miso soup. Starting in 1977 Alfred Birnbaum, an American who grew up in Japan, did extensive research, in conjunction with The Soyfoods Center, on developing Western-style natto recipes (as yet unpublished) and on translating writings on natto from Japanese to English. Similar very creative work was done by another American, Linda Barber, whose recipe ideas and observations were published first in 1981 (with Matsuda) in Japan in a striking full-color booklet entitled Tofu, Natto Ryori , and then, in a much different form, in 1982 in Soyfoods magazine.

As of 1984 there were only six known manufacturers of natto in the US: three in Hawaii and one each in Arkansas, California, and Massachusetts (see Chapter 72). Using storebought natto as a starter, homemade natto or finger lickin' natto can be prepared easily, using recipes in books described above.

If natto has any future in the West, it will probably be in the form of either finger lickin' natto or of the dried salted natto made in southern Japan. Regular natto will always remain an acquired taste for the very few.


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