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The Best Fermented Japanese Foods and How to Cook with Them

Fermentation has played a huge part in Japanese cuisine and there’s all manner of these potent and powerful delights to be discovered, that will elevate your dishes to the next level

Adjoa Kittoe
Adjoa Kittoe
4 min read
The Best Fermented Japanese Foods and How to Cook with Them

From kombucha drinks to kimchi-infused everything, the fermentation trend is one that’s here to stay. And it’s easy to understand why: that unmistakable sweet-sour umami tang and those all-important health benefits make fermented foods so alluring.

Fermentation has played a huge part in Japanese cuisine and there’s all manner of these potent and powerful delights to be discovered, that will elevate your dishes to the next level. Here, we take a look at the best fermented Japanese foods and reveal how to cook with them or make them at home yourself.

A Potted History on Japanese Food Fermentation

Like so many other cultures, Japan has a long history of food fermentation. As far back as the 8th century, the Japanese were eating fermented pickles. The warm and humid Japanese climate creates the perfect environment for bacteria which is safe to eat to grow.

Koji mould is used abundantly in Japan to create fermented dishes. During the fermentation process, these functional microorganisms react with the starches, sugars and proteins in ingredients like soybeans, cereals, vegetables, fish, and milk. In turn, they produce an abundance of health-giving nutrients.

Miso

From soups to dressings, Miso has been a Japanese cooking staple familiar to the west for quite some time now. Although its history dates way back to Japan’s Muromachi period in the 14th Century when Buddhist monks discovered that soybeans could be ground into a delicious paste that’s savory, salty and deeply flavorful.

Made with fermented soybeans along with koji and salt, the legendary paste is considered one Japan’s five basic seasonings along with sugar, salt, vinegar, and soy sauce. Making miso is quite a complex process, the cooked soybeans are combined with the koji starter culture and left to ferment for about 6 months.

Health benefits of miso:
Rich in proteins, miso is packed with essential mineral, B vitamins, vitamins E, K and folic acid. Being fermented, miso is loaded with gut-nurturing beneficial bacteria.

How to cook with miso:
Endlessly versatile, miso paste can be used in plenty of ways. Add a spoonful to hot water then stir in noodles and your favorite veg to make a tasty soup. Use miso to add a kick to marinades and dressings. Enliven stir fries with a spoonful or as a replacement to soy sauce.

Nattō

Like miso, nattō is made with soybeans, except they’re left whole rather than crushed. The result is a sticky, stringy texture that covers the beans, a funky aroma and a distinctive taste.

Traditionally nattō (meaning, ‘the meat of the samurai’) were made by wrapping boiled soybeans in rice straw as the straw had the necessary bacteria _Bacillus subtilis _on its surface. But by the turn of the 20th century, the bacteria had been isolated and preparation methods of this superfood were modernized.

During the fermentation process, probiotics develop as well as nattokinase, a type of enzyme that helps dissolve blood clots.

Health benefits of nattō:
Packed with calcium and vitamin K2, nattō is great for building strong bones. What’s more, it contains fiber and probiotics, both of which can help reduce cholesterol and keep the heart healthy.

How to cook nattō:
The Japanese love nattō for breakfast. To make it at home wash and soak organic soybeans for 10 hours. Use three parts water to one part soybeans.

  1. Drain and place in a large pot, add water and boil for 3-4 hours.
  2. Drain the cooked beans and add to a sterilized pot. Dissolve one spoonful of Nattomoto Powder in 2 teaspoons of sterilized water then pour over the beans.
  3. Loosely over the pot with tin foil and store at 37 degrees Celsius for 24 hours.
  4. Once it’s ready, there should be slimy strands coating the beans. Transfer to a plastic tub and chill overnight before serving for breakfast.

Rice Vinegar

Like miso, rice vinegar is another staple in Japanese cooking culture. Sharp, acidic but slightly sweet, it’s a perfectly balanced ingredient. It was introduced to Japan in the 4th century from China and is carefully made by master brewers.

First, the rice is brewed to make sake. Yeast in is then added to kickstart the fermentation process, which then converts the liquid into acetic acid / vinegar.

Health benefits of rice vinegar:
Fermenting white rice and processing it into vinegar produces 15 kinds of amino acids and more than 70 kinds of organic acids. These inhibit the accumulation of body fat, aiding the loss of weight.

How to cook with rice vinegar:
The list of how rice vinegar can be used is endless. Use it when preparing sushi rice, making marinades, pickles, and dressings. Japanese rice vinegar will perk up stir fries — and even French fries!

Tsukemono

Literally translating to ‘pickled things’, tsukemono are Japanese vegetables pickled in brine. Japanese food culture is influenced by the principles of balance and meals usually consist of rice, soup and pickles. They date back to medieval times when pickling fresh fruits and vegetables in the summer was a great way to preserve food for the cold winters.

With clean, crisp flavors, the purpose of tsukemono is to act as a palate cleanser whilst offering color too. From ginger and daikon to cucumber and eggplant, the Japanese love to create tsukemono from a wide array of vegetables. Going through the process of lactic-acid fermentation, the vegetables gain health-giving benefits.

Health benefits of tsukemono:
Packed with vitamins, fiber and probiotic cultures, tsukemono increase gut flora.

How to cook tsukemono:
Preparing tsukemono is easy. All you need to do is pick your favorite vegetable (for instance, radish, cucumber, ginger, cabbage etc) and finely slice them and add into clean glass Kilner jars or containers.

To make a basic brine (shiozuke) add 6 tablespoons of sea salt (16g per tbsp) to every 4 cups of water. Pour over the vegetables, close the jars and place heavy object on top (like plates or books) to apply pressure to the jars.

Leave for eight hours and eat your tsukemono within in 3-4 days.

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Adjoa Kittoe

I'm a private chef and food writer who has a love for technology, plants & spirituality. Owner of catering business, Seulful Pantry.