WHO’S THE NATTO DEALER SUPPLYING JAPAN’S STINKIEST, SLIMIEST FOOD TO NEW YORK CHEFS?
Ann Yonetani, the woman behind NYrture, wants to introduce America to the beloved Japanese specialty
BY AMANDA ARNOLD MARCH 29, 2016
Ann Yonetani teaches food science in the New School’s Food Studies department by day, but for the past six months or so, she’s been trying her hand at dealing. And she’s good at it. With little marketing or self-promotion, her client-base has gone from nonexistent to receiving calls from the likes of Ivan Orkin and David Chang. When she was contacted by Masa Takayama, the sushi chef behind New York’s super-high-end Masa, asking if he could try some of her product, she was completely blown away. Yonetani, the woman behind New York-based NYrture, is only the second person in the United States to make natto from scratch and to start a company to sell it, and she had no idea demand would be this high.
A ubiquitous Japanese specialty that has yet to make its way into Americans’ diets (despite our obsessions with Japanese culture and fermented foods), natto is made using two simple ingredients: soybeans and the bacteria Bacillus subtilis, which cohabitate for about a week before turning into a sticky, slimy, pungent tangle of fermented beans. In Japan, it’s commonly consumed over hot rice for breakfast (which is how Orkin likes his), but Yonetani uses it like you a funky cheese, tossing it with pasta, eating it with crackers, and even topping her pizza with it. On a recent trip to New York City’s Italian restaurant Bar B, she instagrammed a picture of scallops, uni, and natto, with the confession, “OK, #NYrture #newyorknatto was my own post-plating addition #dontleavehomewithoutit.”
“In Japan, they joke that natto’s one of those things that Westerners can’t handle,” she says. But because natto is the most concentrated known food source of vitamin K2, has a slew of other healthful benefits, like being full of probiotics, and is such an iconic Japanese food, she wants to make it less intimidating. The only other dedicated company producing it in the US are Megumi NATTO in Los Angeles, so Yonetani is attentive to the product she makes, knowing that her natto may be many people’s first experience with it.
After inoculating the soybeans with the bacteria, she isn’t done with the batch. “I’m very careful about what I put out there, so I taste every tray,” Yonetani says. “These days, I’m eating quite a lot of natto.”
Yonetani never planned on going into the food business. With a Bachelor’s in biology, Master’s in biochemistry, and PhD in microbiology, she had spent decades working in labs and studying microbiomes. But last summer she decided to book a trip to Tokyo, where she studied the natto-making process with a fifth-generation maker who thought it was strange that a culturally American woman would want to eat natto. She considers it “a coming-together of many interests and experiences”—her Japanese heritage, her studies about probiotics, and her fascination with how Japanese food is portrayed in the West. And last fall, NYrture was born.
“Natto is really one of the staples [in Japan], but for whatever reason, even though sushi is on every corner here, natto is socially, at least of yet, unknown here,” she says.
Today, she churns out around small batch natto by hand at a cooperative food manufacturing facility, Organic Food Incubator in Long Island City, all of which she tries to deliver herself via public transportation—especially if the buyer is new. She likes to form a relationship with her clientele because the vast majority of her customers aren’t Japanese who grew up eating natto; many of them are people who’ve never tried it before, a statistic that Yonetani didn’t expect at all. And because a good batch of natto is like a fine wine or cheese, she feels connected to her product. It is living, after all. Here, “The human is not in total control, and that’s kinda the beauty of it,” Yonetani says.
New York Times:
Are You Ready to Eat Your Natto?
By RICHARD SCHIFFMAN, August 2, 2016
Does a stinky, fermented soybean condiment belong on your plate? Ann Yonetani, a microbiologist turned food entrepreneur, thinks so.
The preparation, called natto, has a mild, earthy taste and looks like a mishmash of tiny brown jelly beans suspended in white goo. It is popular in many parts of Japan but has yet to catch on in most other places. Dr. Yonetani, who teaches food science at the New School, founded NYrture Food last year to introduce natto to New Yorkers, calling it one of the most potent sources of healthful bacteria there is.
Bacteria have not traditionally been something we wanted in our foods. Increasingly, though, researchers like Dr. Yonetani, a Columbia-trained specialist in cell reproduction, believe that in our quest to avoid germs, we have inadvertently eliminated many of the beneficial bugs that help to comprise a healthy human microbiome, the community of microbes that live in our gut.
“Food used to be fresh and dirty. We lived surrounded by nature,” said Dr. Yonetani. “Nowadays, we are exposed to too little microbial diversity.”
"Cacio e pepe e natto" Spaghetti with parmesan, black pepper and NYrture natto, garnished with broccoli rabe greens and flowers.CreditAnn Yonetani
Dr. Yonetani, who calls herself a “microbe farmer,” says that each tablespoon of her finished product contains a billion of the healthful soil bacteria Bacillus subtilis, a count that is “orders of magnitude greater than what you would find in a typical probiotic food.” Because natto contains lots of dormant bacterial spores, which Dr. Yonetani has observed under the microscope, she speculates that the bacterial spores can survive the high-acid environment of the stomach and “colonize the intestine, where conditions are more welcoming.”
It is a potent selling point given the growing interest in the microbiome and the booming market for probiotics, products that reputedly help replenish the healthful bacteria in our bodies.
“The microbiome is a hot issue right now, and proponents of probiotics are riding that wave,” said Marion Nestle, a nutrition expert at New York University. Still, she said, our knowledge of probiotics remains “in its infancy.” Most of the studies that demonstrate the efficacy of probiotics, she noted, are sponsored by yogurt companies that may report only positive outcomes.
“Are probiotics good for you? Sure, why not?” Dr. Nestle said. “Are they miracle foods? That would be nice, if true, but the science isn’t there yet.”
Fermented foods rich in living bacteria have long been popular in Japan as a way to promote health, said Dr. Yonetani, who was first introduced to natto as a child during visits to relatives there, where it is commonly consumed with rice for breakfast, and often mixed with chives and raw eggs. Just as children in America are urged to eat their spinach, in Japan they are told to eat their natto.
But for many of us who didn’t grow up on natto, there is a certain yuck factor. Natto’s slimy coating — reminiscent of okra — led one biologist collaborator of Dr. Yonetani’s at Harvard, where she did research, to call it “Klingon food.”
As with most probiotics, the science about natto is at an early stage. Dr. Ralph Holsworth, an emergency room supervisor and biomedical researcher in a rural hospital in Colorado who has coauthored several studies on the enzyme nattokinase, a byproduct of natto fermentation, said that the enzyme “breaks down fibrin in the blood, a protein aggregate involved in blood clotting, decreases the ‘stickiness’ of the red blood cells, and assists in the prevention of arterial plaque formation.” These blood-thinning actions, he said, may lessen the severity of heart attacks and strokes.
Dr. Holsworth uses the enzyme in his medical practice to help prevent blood clots and assist in healing from surgery. Nattokinase is not yet widely used in mainstream medical practice, although it has been gaining popularity as a food supplement with the public.
Natto may also be good for bone health, said Dr. Dennis Goodman, a clinical professor of medicine and director of integrative medicine at New York University. He cited a study that showed that in eastern Japan, where they eat more natto than in western parts of the country but otherwise have similar diets, there are significantly lower levels of osteoporosis. Dr. Goodman attributes this to natto’s high levels of vitamin K2, a form of vitamin K, which he said works like a theater usher by directing calcium to the bones.
“Most people are not getting nearly enough K2 in their diet,” said Dr. Goodman, who has written a book about the vitamin. “The only food that gives you a sufficient amount is natto.” Dr. Yonetani says that a single heaping tablespoon of natto contains approximately 300 micrograms of K2, about seven times the minimum daily requirement.
To make the product, Dr. Yonetani rents a room at the back of the Organic Food Incubator, a cooperative space for artisanal food producers in Long Island City, Queens. Her closet-narrow kitchen is fitted with pressure cookers, boxes full of glass jars and a microscope. A papier-mâché Daruma, a troll-like deity said to bestow good luck on fledgling businesses, oversees the operation.
As she peels back the plastic wrapper from a freshly fermented tray, scores of sticky spider’s web thin strands of biofilm rise up from the batch, and a limburger cheese-like aroma pervades the air. Sampling the two-day-old natto with a plastic spoon, Dr. Yonetani pronounces it finished.
“It’s got some nice coffee notes,” she effuses, with the discernment of a wine connoisseur. She offers me a spoonful. The taste is not at all unpleasant, a cross between chopped liver and cottage cheese. “Every batch comes out a bit different,” Dr. Yonetani said. “That’s not something the food industry likes. But I think it’s beautiful, because that’s biology.”
National Public Radio (NPR) show Splendid Table:
"Natto - It's Like A Vegan Stinky Cheese"
Podcast can be heard here: https://www.splendidtable.org/story/natto-its-like-a-vegan-stinky-cheese
Von Diaz: I recently tried your natto, and I have to say it's a little hard to describe. How would you describe it?
Ann Yonetani: How would I describe it? I think it's delicious. But for those who've never had it before, natto is simply steamed whole soybeans that come with their own special sauce.
VD: What is that special sauce like?
AY: That special sauce, for lack of a better word, is kind of slimy, like the mucilage that you get from cooked okra. It's a cross between that and the gooey marshmallow strings you get from a Rice Krispie treat.
VD: That's pretty accurate from my remembrance. What about the texture?
AY: Again, it's a cross between those two things. I think for a lot of first-time eaters of natto, the texture is the thing that is the most surprising and perhaps polarizing.
VD: Texture is a big thing for a lot of eaters. How long has natto been around?
AY: It's quite an old food. It's been around for a least a millennium in Japan, possibly longer. I recently learned that it may even have older origins in China, like many cultural things in Japan do.
VD: How is it typically eaten?
AY: Typically, the Japanese would eat it for breakfast.
VD: Just on its own?
AY: No, it's usually mixed with rice and soy sauce or other condiments, sometimes chopped scallions or vegetables. Raw egg is another common Japanese addition.
I tell people who are not Japanese to think outside of the box and not feel that they need to eat it with rice. In Japan, everyone has a rice cooker full of rice that's always on. For people in America who may not have rice lying around, it's useful to think of natto as a stinky cheese in bean form. Really, that's what it is. It's like a vegan stinky cheese. It's the closest thing a vegan can eat to a really strong, washed-rind cheese like Époisses or a Taleggio or a Chaumes, something in that vein. If you like that kind of fermented food, then natto may be easy for you to like if you can get over the texture thing.
VD: How do you eat it at home?
AY: I put it on pasta, toast, and pizza. It's great with eggs of any kind.
VD: Scrambled in them or on them?
AY: Any way. It's great on deviled eggs; that's one of my favorites.
VD: So how is natto made?
AY: The process is pretty simple. I start with dried, GMO-free soybeans from a particular varietal that's special for making natto. The beans are simply washed and soaked to hydrate them and then steamed, so they're cooked when they're inoculated with Bacillus subtilis. Then they're fermented for just one day and aged for about a week or so to develop flavor and texture before it's ready to eat or sell. Like any simple task, to do it really well it's all in the details. There are a million little things that can make a difference in the quality of the final product.