Ibaraki Marche (Birth of NYrture New York Natto. Part IV)
Having had a natto epiphany in finding so many premium nattos in Tokyo depachikas, I was even more thrilled to find out about the existence of natto specialty stores. The most impressive selection of nattos I encountered was at Ibaraki Marche.
Ibaraki prefecture is a region of mainland Japan just northeast of Tokyo, famous for producing natto. Many great natto producers are located in Ibaraki, and its central city Mito hosts a popular annual natto speed-eating contest. Ibaraki Marche is a specialty food shop in the Ginza district of Tokyo that sells artisanal food products from the Ibaraki area, including dozens of varieties of excellent natto.
Some nattos were presented very traditionally--wrapped in bundles of straw (seen on the top shelf here). This is how natto was first made and stored, inside boat-shaped sheaths of rice straw, a natural source of the grass/soil-dwelling bacteria that ferment natto. Like most traditional fermented foods around the world, natto is said to have been discovered by happy accident. The legend of natto is this...
Around 1000 AD, a great samurai and scholar named Hachiman-taro Yoshie and his legion of warriors were poised to conquer the northern part of mainland Japan. One evening, after soybeans and other foods had been cooked for dinner, they discovered an opposing army was approaching and had to mobilize in haste. The samurai's cook quickly wrapped the soybeans in available straw and tied them to a horse's back. Later, having successfully evaded the attackers, the cook unpacked the soybeans to find them fermented. The straw had provided a natural source of Bacillus subtilis bacteria, which grew in the warmth and moisture from the body heat and sweat of the horse running through the night. The cook tasted the fermented beans and found them to be delicious (1). Natto rapidly spread as a culinary tradition throughout northeastern Japan and beyond.
Although straw packaging is not legally possible in America, this prompted me to think about packaging alternatives to the unattractive and unrecyclable styrofoam containers in which all available natto is found here. I loved the straw, bark or paper packages I saw in Japan, but realized these were not viable possibilities due to cost and/or food safety restrictions. Instead, we chose to offer our natto in simple glass jars which can be recycled or repurposed.
Reference: (1) History of Natto and Its Relatives. http://www.soyinfocenter.com/HSS/natto1.php