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Italy’s Staple Meets Japan’s Sweetheart: Natto Spaghetti

natto spaghetti recipe
Natto, beautiiful natto! (Photo Credit: Jasja Dekker)

I’ve mentioned before that while I am an avid cook, I’m not naturally a recipe person. I taste and I replicate, but writing down exact measurements is not really my thing though I intend to try more from now. Even though I just cooked this natto spaghetti recipe 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? Instead, I will show you step-by-step how I made it. If you’ve boiled pasta before, you should be able to gauge approximately how much of each you will be needing for this particular natto spaghetti recipe. For those really in the dark, feel free to email me and I’ll walk you through it.

natto spaghetti recipe
Check out how slimy and sticky natto is! (Photo Credit: RamblingSpoon.com)

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.

ikura natto
Beautiful shot of natto and ikura atop rice — photo credit: Tsukurikata Blog

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, and since he doesn’t cook – – coming up with a natto spaghetti recipe, something I’d never heard of or imagined, was left to me. 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.

Natto Spaghetti Recipe – Step by Step

natto spaghetti
Boil water, salt, oil and add the noodles

(1.) Boil Pasta. I used a box of spaghetti noodles, so keep in mind this would comfortably serve 4-5 average appetites. (The package says it serves 6…and that’d be accurate if we were all 3 feet tall.)

Brown some ground beef.
Brown some ground beef.

(2) Brown the 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.

3 packages of natto for one box of spaghetti
3 packages of natto for one box of spaghetti

(3) Prepare the natto. You can buy natto at almost any big Asian supermarket or grocery. 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 (one box of spaghetti noodles), 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, so make sure you toss some salt in as this IS your “sauce” for the pasta.

natto-spaghetti-recipe-6(4) Add in the eggs. 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.

natto-spaghetti-recipe-7(5) It’s time to mix, mix, mix!  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.

Toss in green onions and give it a quick stir.
Toss in green onions and give it a quick stir.

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. I think.

natto-spaghetti-recipe-4(6) Toss the pasta with fresh butter — grass-fed butter is even better. 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. This step also keeps the noodles from sticking together AND cools down the noodles.

natto-spaghetti-recipe-9(7) Toss the meat in; toss the natto in. NOTE: you do want to stir the butter into the noodle and let it sit for about 5 minutes, stirring it occasionally. If the noodles are too hot, you can, technically, begin cooking the raw egg — which is not what you’re shooting for here. Take the strained ground beef and dump it into the pot — then do the same with the natto mixture.

Then, you just mix it up and end up with this:

natto-spaghetti-recipe-10Tasting 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 so 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.

Final Product!
Final Product!
how to cook natto spaghetti
Another night with natto spaghetti – no meat this time!

 

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. If you do make natto spaghetti, let me know in the comments how it turned out!

Grace Keh

Managing Editor

Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.

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2

RT @TheGraceKeh: Dinner. NATTO spaghetti.
Recipe? Here you go: https://t.co/8txYJsO7UL https://t.co/usotT6xTcl

3
gnesiohamartolos

Perhaps the term you seek to describe natto is "mucilaginous." Tony Bourdain described natto as resembling what is found in the dentist's spit cup. Like your Mr. K, I was born and raised in Hawaii, specifically Palolo Valley, and yes, a popular Italian-Japanese fusion restaurant on Kapiolani serves natto-bacon spaghetti. Substitute bacon for your ground beef and you've arrived. Of necessity, have to make my own natto here in Panhandle Florida. To answer KgracieK's question, after steaming the soy beans and adding the starter culture, water, sugar and salt, incubate for 24 hours at 112-115 degrees F. I've had inconsistent results placing the beans in a covered dish wrapped with an electric blanket in a cardboard box. A commercial incubator would be ideal. There are "how to make natto" sites on the Internet.

Author4

Thank you so much for the information, Gnesiohamartolos! I can't wait to try it.
My neighbors, I'm sure, will love me for trying, too. :-)

5

I have just made five pounds of home made natto using a yogurt maker for a Japanese civic club festival June 3 in Kona, I am anxious to try making your version of natto spaghetti. how exciting.
Kimie in Hawaii

Author6

I'm obviously a wee bit late on replying....but how did this yogurt machine natto turn out, Jeanne?

7

Oh WOW ! Despite all the grief my friends give me, I've been a natto lover after the 3rd time one of my Japanese friends made me try it. Been eating it over rice for years. In fact I've got about 9 boxes in the freezer. I try to get the fresh natto at the local Japanese supermarket when I can. NEVER in my wildest imaginations would I have thought of Natto Spaghetti. I LOVE the mentaiko spaghetti in Japan. Will definitely let you know how it goes after I get back from Hong Kong next week.

8

Gerald - it really IS such a strange and bizarre combination but it totally works, in a weird way. It makes your pasta rather "sticky", but somehow enhances the flavor of the flour, too!
Definitely try it and let me know how it turns out.
Safe travels to Hong Kong ~ now THERE'S a food mecca!!

9

You can make your own fresh natto. It is very easy. The only thing you need is some cooked soy beans, a pack of commercially available natto as a starter culture and a warm place where it can ferment for 12-24 hours. I have been successfully making my own natto for several years.

Author10

I'd love the exact recipe, if you can share. You know, so I don't kill myself from eating rotting soybeans. :-) And how warm? Warm isn't easy to find in SF!

11

Great to see this, I love natto, just eat it out of the container when I buy it in the store. I'm going to have to cook this sometime soon.

San Francisco Food® has been providing trusted restaurant reviews and recipes since 2009, led by food author Grace Keh & read by food lovers worldwide.

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