Less odoriferous ‘natto’ gains favor in Taiwan

by Ella Lu

Kyodo

“Natto,” a traditional Japanese staple made from fermented soy beans, has rarely graced dining tables in Taiwan because of its pungent aroma.

But the sticky dish’s fortunes may be changing, especially since Li Fu-yuan, a 76-year-old food maker, has created an “improved” variety.

“My product is tasty and has been widely recognized by academia,” Li said. “I hope to let the people that need healthy food know about natto. I have confidence that those who have been interested in natto but always hesitated to give it a try will be satisfied with my efforts.”

According to Lee, natto was never formally brought to Taiwan when it was under Japanese colonial rule before the World War II. But in recent years, big supermarkets have tried to introduce the dish to the Taiwanese and develop some byproducts. Only a few people, however, appear to enjoy its stickiness and cheesy “old-socks” aroma.

Li, noting how natto has been praised as an ideal health food in Japan for resisting disease and maintaining longevity, embarked four years ago on the road of creating an odorless version.

A fermentation expert who apprenticed at a Japanese workshop when he was 15 and launched his own vinegar and miso business at the age of 26, Li began by knocking on the doors of factories in Tokyo and Kyushu for recipes and experiences.

Back in the laboratory, where his eyes were glued almost all day to the glutinous brown stuff sitting in tubs and barrels, Li experimented with various types of beans, tried different temperatures and humidity settings, and adjusted fermentation times in an attempt to get rid of the stink.

But even after removing the stench, he faced another big challenge.

For him, the finished product would not deserve to be called natto if the entangled, weblike strings gluing the beans together weren’t included in his less-pungent product.

After reproducing the look, if not the stink, of real natto, he went public with his achievement at a food exhibition, where it raised little interest.

Surprisingly, Li’s “vitality natto” later became the hit of the season when severe acute respiratory syndrome broke out and took several lives in Taiwan.

Li, who has since been called “Uncle Natto,” thinks local media reports playing up the sensational story of how the soybean’s bacteria supposedly helped save Japan from SARS turned him into one of the few people who have profited from the disease.

“The timing was very important. Because of SARS, I didn’t have to worry too much about how to tout my beans,” Li said. “Related information about natto was passed along from one family to another. Inquiry calls have not stopped since people read the news reports.”

Li’s homemade, odorless natto can be flavored with soya sauce, mustard, honey and sugar. With each package containing about three boxes and selling at a reasonable $2.70, sales have doubled from around 5,000 boxes a day in 2004 to 10,000 in 2005.

“Original” natto imported from Japan also received rare exposure.

According to department store Mitsukoshi Ltd., which has opened up about 10 outlets on the island, about 10,000 packages — 30,000 to 35,000 boxes — of natto a month were sold last year.

“In the past, overseas Japanese working and living in Taipei would purchase natto,” Mitsukoshi Senior Vice President Isao Hosonuma said. “(But) sales boomed right after SARS. More and more Taiwanese heard that natto could be good for their health and wanted to catch up with the fashion.”