What’s that smell?

If you’re brave enough to try this curious ingredient, your body will thank you for the hearty helping of nutritional benefits.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

Many of us have grown up hearing this oft-used phrase—moms, we know you mean well!—but it’s pretty impressive just how varied and versatile breakfast is around the world. For some people, the most important meal of the day consists of scarfing down a quick bowl of cereal at the kitchen counter on the way out the door, or grabbing a coffee and a bagel at the café nearest to the office. For others, breakfast is a full-on family affair that calls for everyone to gather around the table and share in a hearty meal. From cheese and olives in Turkey to black bean soup in Brazil, rice and kimchi in Korea to eggs and sausage in the UK, salted fish and fresh fruit in Jamaica to Vegemite on toast in Australia, breakfast sure does take many forms. And in Japan, there’s a key morning meal ingredient that may surprise you—and make you plug your nose.

Natto is unique. Made of cooked soybeans fermented with Bacillus subtilis bacteria and then refrigerated to settle into a sticky, stringy mixture, it makes for an interesting culinary experience, to say the least. relatively mild and earthy, the taste of natto isn’t bad at all—if you can get past the smell. Nothing says good morning quite like the scent of old, wet socks or rotting cheese wafting up from the plate in front of you … right?

A fortified staple in many diets across Japan, natto has been a household name (especially in eastern regions like Kanto, Tohoku and Hokkaido) for a long time—but its origins are not exactly known. Some say that natto developed over time in different parts of the country simultaneously due to its easily available ingredients: soybeans, soy sauce, mustard and green onion. Others point to Minamoto No Yoshiie of the Heian period (794–1185) and credit his battalion for its accidental discovery of natto. As one version of the story goes, in northeastern Japan between 1086 and 1088, Yoshiie’s soldiers were boiling soybeans to feed their horses when they were attacked and forced to stash the beans in straw bags and run. Days later when they returned and opened the bags, the soldiers found that the beans had fermented with the bacteria in the straw. They ate them anyway and found that they liked the taste—even Yoshiie approved. Natto took off in popularity shortly thereafter, and since then advances in the production of Bacillus subtilis have made it possible to mass-develop the sticky soybeans without the use of straw.

If you can find natto in your local Asian grocery store, it’s worth the purchase for its health benefits alone. Just one serving (100 g) will net you 20% of the recommended daily value of vitamin C and dietary fibre. ideal for breakfast, a small serving of natto packs a huge amount of protein (18 g)—perfect to keep you ener- gized until lunch rolls around.

Ready? Grab your chopsticks, hold your breath and dig in!