The Necessary Guide to Natto: History, Health Benefits & More

By Annika Hotta
Updated: April 19, 2024

Ah, natto. Whether you love it, hate it, or are understandably too intimidated to try it, natto is a cultural staple of traditional Japanese cuisine.

But what exactly is natto? Natto refers to fermented soybeans, which are either eaten on their own or in other Japanese dishes, such as miso soup, rice dishes, or tofu dishes. Their sticky, chewy texture may put many foreigners off, but with so many ways to prepare natto — not to mention the many health benefits of eating it — you’ll surely be able to find a way that works for you. 

Who knows, maybe after hearing our tips and tricks, natto will become a regular addition to your meals, too! And if you only try it once, at least you’ll be able to brag to your Japanese friends and coworkers that you have bravely eaten natto. 

A brief history of natto 

A serving of natto over rice, with straw-wrapped natto in the background.

Natto has a long and interesting history in Japanese culture. Originally brought from China, Japanese people have been eating natto as far back as the Yayoi period from 300 BC to 300 AD. 

The Japanese soybean dish became a common street food in the Edo Period (1603-1867). Back then, the bacterium, natto-kin, was added naturally by wrapping the beans in a rice straw wrapper, which contains the bacterium. 

Eventually, manufacturers switched to adding the bacteria manually before sealing it in the Styrofoam cups we see today. 

What does natto taste like?

Natto that has been stirred with chopsticks, giving it a sticky, frothy texture.

Although the sticky texture and pungent smell of natto is what turns many people away, the flavor is why many Japanese people love it. Natto has a nutty, umami flavor that pairs well with a variety of ingredients, making it a versatile addition to any meal. 

How to eat natto

Natto being picked up with chopsticks, leaving behind a sticky residue.

Depending on the type of natto you buy, it’ll usually come with a small packet of sauce, called tare, and a packet of karashi, which is a spicy Japanese mustard. 

The sauce contains fish, so if you are vegan, you can buy natto without the sauce by choosing one that says “タレなし (tare nashi)" or タレ・からし付いておりません (tare/karashi tsuite orimasen). You can make your own sauce with soy sauce and mirin, optionally topping it with karashi. 

Stir the beans a few times with chopsticks before adding in the seasoning. This is said to produce a more umami flavor. The more times you stir, the better the beans will taste! 

As for toppings and combinations, you can add green onion sauce, kimchi, a runny egg, and even cheese. You can also use natto as a topping for rice, udon, or chilled tofu (hiyayakko). The possibilities are truly endless! 

The health benefits of natto 

Natto served in a bowl alongside a Japanese set meal of rice, egg, and spring onions.

Another reason Japanese people eat natto regularly is for its many known health benefits:

1. Improves digestion: Probiotics in natto have been found to enter the digestion system and support regulation and activity.

2. Supports strong bones: Natto is a great source of Vitamin K2, which is important in the promotion of bone creation.

3. Lowers cholesterol and blood pressure: This superfood is a natural source of soy protein, which has been shown to decrease cholesterol and blood pressure by decreasing oxidative stress. 

4. Strengthens immune systems: Packed with vitamins, natto is suggested to build a strong immune system. 

Although more research needs to be done on other potential health benefits of eating natto, it’s clear that this dish lives up to its superfood status. 

Where to eat/buy natto

Rows of packaged natto at a supermarket.

You can buy natto in any supermarket or konbini across Japan. The great news is it’s dirt-cheap too — three packets cost around ¥76! So whether you’re looking for a nutritious side dish that’s plant-based or a quick breakfast, natto is a useful addition to your weekly groceries. 

If you prefer to buy organic, look for “okame natto.” The label is commonly written in hiragana (おかめ). All natto will be in the same section as other fermented foods like kimchi, takuan, umeboshi, etc. 

Many izakaya or teishoku (set meal) restaurants will also offer natto dishes — some modernizing them in the form of natto fried rice, natto pizza, and more. If you’re hesitant to try natto on its own, these dishes may make the texture more palatable. 

Chopsticks picking up a mouthful from a serving of natto, rice, and spring onions.

Finally, you can make natto yourself if you want to be really traditional about it! The process involves soaking soybeans in water for up to a day, steaming them in a pressure cooker, mixing them with a bacterium called natto-kin, and leaving them to ferment for a day. 

These homemade beans will last up to one week in the fridge, during which time the flavor and texture will get better with age.

Looking to learn more about traditional food in Japan? Get to know the Japanese soybean, or work your way through all the Japanese foods you need to try!

Natto FAQs: 

Natto being poured over a bowl of rice.

What is natto?

Natto is soybeans that have been fermented through a multi-day process. You can find them sold in three-pack styrofoam cups both in the konbini and the supermarket. 

What does natto taste like?

Natto has a nutty, umami flavor that balances well with other strongly flavored ingredients such as kimchi, mayo, mustard, or cheese. The texture is sticky and chewy. 

What are the health benefits of eating natto?

Natto has a variety of health benefits, such as lowering the risk of certain cancers, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels, improving digestion, strengthening the immune system, and much more. 

How to eat natto?

Natto can be eaten on its own or mixed into other dishes. Typically, you eat it with the dashi and karashi (spicy mustard) it comes with, but you can also mix it into rice, tofu, and soup dishes. 

We hope this guide helped give you some insight into this controversial staple of Japanese cuisine. While it may require some bravery to try, natto is a unique addition to any meal in Japan, so go forth and give it a try! 

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We strive to be as accurate as possible and keep up with the changing landscape of Japan's food and travel industries. If you spot any inaccuracies, please send a report.
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Annika Hotta
After studying abroad in Shiga prefecture in 2019, Annika moved to Japan in 2021. In her writing, she highlights the best dishes and places to eat in Japan for both the picky and the adventurous.
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