When an idea arises independently again and again in different cultures around the world, it may be a good one. In the Himalayas, a region including Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and northern India is home to traditional unsalted fermented soybean foods resembling natto.
The most widespread natto-like food in the Himalayas is known as kinema, a cultural staple food of non-Brahmin Hindus, Lepchas and Bhutias. Kinema is believed to have originated in eastern Nepal some time during the Kirat (600BC - 100AD) dynasty (1). Kinema is made by wrapping lightly crushed boiled soybeans in local fern leaves inside a bamboo basket (both plant materials providing a source of Bacillus subtilis bacteria) to ferment above a warm oven for 1-3 days (2).
I was fascinated to learn about kinema and wanted to know how similar it is to natto. So far, I haven't been able to find kinema for sale in New York, so I resorted to second hand testing.
I asked my friend Maya, who is from Nepal and ate kinema regularly there, to try my natto and tell me how it compares to the kinema she remembers. Right away, she said that it looked and smelled like kinema, but I waited for her to cook and taste it at home. A week later, I was happy to hear that she had enjoyed the natto and that it had been "just same like kinema, same food "!
Unlike natto, kinema is usually fried with salt, chilies, onion and tomato before eating with rice (2). Most likely, the tradition of frying kinema in oil before consumption evolved as a safety precaution in a culture/time that lacked refrigeration.
In culturally/linguistically diverse India, variations of kinema are known by many different regional names (hawaijar in Manipur, tungrymbai in Meghalaya, bekang in Mizoram, aakhone in Nagaland, and peruyaan in Arunachal Pradesh). Many of these are made into curries or fried like kinema, but in some regions they are also commonly eaten uncooked as a side dish with rice like natto (1,3).
References: (1) Tamang, J.P. and Kailasapathy, K. (2010) Fermented Foods and Beverages of the World. CRC Press. (2) Sarkar, P.K. et al. (1994) Kinema -a traditional soybean fermented food: proximate composition and microflora. Food Microbiology.11:47-55. (3) Ray, R.C. and Montet, D. (2015) Microorganisms and Fermentation of Traditional Foods. CRC Press.