Italy’s Staple Meets Japan’s Sweetheart: Natto Spaghetti
I’ve mentioned before that while I am an avid cook, I am not a recipe person. Even though I just cooked this last night, I can’t quite tell you, at least not in exact measurements, how much of which ingredient to put in. I don’t measure, so how would I tell you to measure, right?
But this “recipe” post comes with a serious warning: don’t try this at home unless you already like natto, or you tend to be TRULY experimental and daring with your culinary adventures. Bear in mind that I’m a girl who will taste something, without hesitation, so long as it’s not illegal to eat it, and it’s not flailing before my eyes screaming in pain. It being alive is not a problem, but I can’t eat something that looks and sounds like it’s dying a painful death; I’ll eat it after it dies. I live to try various organs, cooked or uncooked — and for most things, I put to Zimmern to shame.
While it doesn’t make sense to me, natto is a Japanese food item that many (and I mean MANY) people seem to hate. Some gag at the mention of it, and others claim they have tried it and thought it was disgusting. It’s basically fermented soybean, and it’s strange to look at as it’s sticky and sort of “globby”, for lack of a better word.
But perhaps because I grew up with it when I lived in Japan, or because I’m just weird — this doesn’t stink to me; those people who think this stinks never tried Korean soybean paste! In fact, I find the scent and/or taste on its own to be rather bland and unremarkable. Natto has a much subtler aroma to it, and once prepared with shoyu, I smell virtually nothing pungent about it at all. (Really, my sense of smell is intact!) Frankly, the texture of natto is much stranger than the smell, but most people seem aghast at the smell long before they even try it.
The texture of this does take a bit of getting used to as it is quite slimy while the beans themselves maintain a soft chewiness. Even for me, it’s hard to describe. In any case, I often make natto and a fresh pot of hot rice — and the two go together like a match made in heaven. This fermented product, like all others, is high in probiotics, and natto is heralded by many Asians to be really good for you, with the media often attributing it to eternal youth, health, weight loss and good cardiac health, etc. In Japan, it’s a common breakfast food, though I generally serve it more for dinner than breakfast.
What goes with white rice, however, doesn’t necessarily go with pasta. Leave it to the Japanese to have given it a try! While I have had strange combinations like Mentaiko Spaghetti (cod roe with pasta), which is similar to the Bottarga Spaghetti that the Southern Italians serve — mixing in natto with spaghetti would have NEVER entered my mind — I promise you this much. This type of pasta is referred to as “wafuu pasta” (meaning: Japanese-style pasta).
Mr. K, however, was born and raised in Hawaii, and it appears this combination reigns supreme there. He’d been talking about this unusual combination for awhile. As mentioned, because I don’t use recipes — it really helps if I have tasted a dish prior to attempting to make it — but since I have no plans of going to Hawaii in the next day or two, I had to wing it last night and give it a shot.
Worst case, we’d be ordering pizza, and there’s one pizza joint I’ve been meaning to try out to review here.
The natto spaghetti that Mr. K had previously enjoyed was made with bacon, he says. If I thought natto and spaghetti was a strange combination — throwing bacon in there made it even odder. Pork belly, perhaps — but bacon? Like breakfast bacon? Naaah, no thanks — we decided my natto spaghetti, assuming it even needs a meat source, will be ground beef.
With a little bit of regular vegetable oil in the skillet, I browned the meat while the pasta was cooking in boiling water. For reference, I cooked about 1.25 box of spaghetti — which turned out to be at least a half box too much for us to finish in one sitting. (I’m glad though, as I’ve been picking at the leftovers since then!) Cooking in the skillet is about a 1/2 lb of ground sirloin that I put aside once it was adequately cooked through.
Everyone will have their own way of making natto, but I stuck to the way I normally make it.
The second photo from the top shows a styrofoam package of natto, which is at best one serving for a really tiny person, in my opinion. I used three of those packages today for this pasta dish, and dumped them all into a bowl. Most natto packages come with small shoyu mixture packets that you can use, and I always add some mustard and salt to the mix. I find that once you put it atop rice (or in this case, pasta), the natto needs a bit more salt to pack some punch.
Then, I crack open some eggs and throw in only the yolks. Do not use the whites as the entire concoction becomes inedible due to being so “eggy”. How many eggs I use depends on the size of the eggs themselves; if they are extra-large, I will use one less egg than I did natto packages, or in last night’s case, I used three packages of natto with three eggs. My logic in this was that I wanted as much of the “natto mix” to coat as much pasta as possible, and the addition of an extra egg made for a bit more liquid.
At this point, I take my spoon and really aggressively mix the entire thing together. My objective is to make sure the entire yolk breaks apart and mixes in with the natto, but I’m not trying to demolish the beans in this process. Just roughly stir the mixture until it reaches a smooth consistency — noting that the mucus-like texture will still remain. (Oddly enough, if you make this up to this point and store in the fridge for a few hours, the mucus-like consistency becomes nonexistent, though I have no idea why.)
Then I throw in some fresh green onions, and if this were over rice, I would usually sprinkle some chili pepper flakes (Korean gochu garu) into the mix for color and a bit of a kick.
This is basically exactly how I would make natto for rice. If you have concerns about the raw egg — well, I can’t help you there; I’ve been eating this for years and years, and I’m still here and relatively in good health.
In the meantime, I had cooked the pasta and drained it thoroughly. Putting it back into the hot pot I boiled it in (to retain heat), I threw in about a 1/3 of a stick of butter. I knew, having heard that there was bacon in this dish the way Mr. K had tried it, that there was some oil source used. I considered olive oil, but in my head, the taste of olive oil and natto would basically cancel each other out so I opted for good ol’ butter. I mixed it in and made sure it was completely melted. Knowing I had salted the meat and the natto, too, I used only a little bit of salt for the pasta.
I’m a big believer in salt.
Finally, I took the strained ground beef and dumped it into the pot — then did the same with the natto mixture I had made. By this point, the pasta had been sitting out for about 10 minutes — and while that was just bad timing on my part up to that point, I was glad I had done so because the last thing I’d want is for the raw egg to begin cooking once dumped in!
Then, you just mix it up and end up with this:
Tasting it, I knew it had been salted perfectly, so I threw in some black pepper to finish it up before plating it.
But I was rather impressed with the combination in that the flavors worked well together. The stickiness of the natto was pretty apparent even mixed in with the pasta, and the raw egg coated all the noodles just right to give a nice subtle flavor of natto throughout the dish without overpowering the taste of pasta or the ground beef. At this point, I was certain I made the right decision in using butter instead of olive oil.
I had cut up some nori (seaweed) into thin slivers, and left some extra green onions to add a fresh green color to the dish once plated.
Still, I had no idea if this was what Mr. K had eaten in Hawaii — and all I knew was that all things considered, the dish turned out pretty tasty. It would still have to pass his discerning taste — and while he is most definitely what I would call a foodie, he does know what he likes and is adamant about what he dislikes.
One bite into it, and I was so pleased and relieved to see that I’d passed. Based on the compliments, moans and groans that followed, I daresay I passed with flying colors and “recreated” something I had never eaten before! Rarely do I see this man eat as heartily as he did this meal — not even at a three-star Michelin restaurant.
And that, folks, is how Natto Spaghetti came to make the pages of San Francisco Food. While admittedly more popular in Japan or Hawaii, where the Japanese population far outweighs any other, it’s easily made here to be enjoyed for anyone who likes/loves natto. Like I said, if you don’t like natto, this may or may not be the natto dish you want to start with, because you not only need to appreciate the taste of natto in and of itself, but what it’s done to what you believe pasta should normally be.
Should you want to try this at your home, natto is readily available at any Japanese or Korean grocery store, and is often found in the frozen section of Chinese markets, too. In San Francisco, I always find it at New MayWah Chinese Market on Clement Street, and I know they also have it at Nijiya Japanese Market. Cheap and allegedly excellent for your health, perhaps this is a twist you can learn to appreciate.
If you already like natto, there’s no reason not to try it.