Taking Traditional Japanese Cuisine to the World (1)
“Un-stringy” Nattō Delights French Palates
“Un-stringy” Nattō Delights French Palates
Ibaraki Growth Industry Promotion Council
Washoku (Japanese cuisine) was added to UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list back in 2013, since which time it has attracted growing international attention. At home, however, factors such as Japan's changing food culture have seen a decline in the consumption of various washoku ingredients. In this series, we look at efforts to grow the international market for traditional Japanese ingredients and food products by redefining them to match local preferences and cultures.
“Nattō and rice” food culture reaches a turning point
Cheap and highly nutritious, nattō (fermented soybean) has been the breakfast of many Japanese for generations. According to Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries statistics, however, domestic production dropped from 250,000 tonnes in 2004 to 216,000 tonnes in 2011. One reason for the decline, suggests the Japan Nattō Cooperative Society Federation (JNCSF), is that around 70 percent of consumers eat their nattō on rice, and with Japanese eating less rice these days, nattō consumption too has suffered (Mainichi Shimbun, August 20, 2013).
An Ibaraki Prefecture specialty, nattō has strong connections with Japanese food culture. While there is a wide range of preferences—both regional and individual—in how nattō is prepared, it's most commonly eaten on top of a bowl of white rice. That's why the drop in rice consumption has impacted so heavily on nattō consumption.
Foreign consumers struggle with sticky stringy texture
Overseas, the nutritional value of nattō is widely recognized, and it is highly respected as a health food. The inclusion of washoku (Japanese cuisine) on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list has also significantly raised international interest in Japanese food. However, foreign consumers have often been put off by nattō's strong odor and characteristic “strings,” as well as the difficulty of combining it with other ingredients, which has limited its range of uses in the kitchen.
A key point in boosting nattō consumption, then, is to widen its applications for consumers as a food product. Few countries overseas share the Japanese food tradition of simply loading nattō on to white rice to eat, so we need to come up with new ways of using nattō to suit different food cultures.
Our aim was to develop a form of nattō that forms fewer strings along with ideas for using it as an ingredient, generating a new, foreign-born nattō culture.
Some years ago, a company asked me to develop bird food using defective nattō. When I went out to the Ibaraki Prefectural Livestock Research Center to hear the details, I discovered that what was considered to be defective about the nattō was its lack of stringiness. Mulling over what other uses such nattō might have, I was struck by its possibilities as an ingredient.
As Japanese consumers were clearly not interested in nattō without its characteristic strings, I immediately went to talk to manufacturers involved in nattō exporting. While similar price competition to Japan had begun in the United States and Asia, not much nattō was exported to Europe, they said, so they were interested in exploring the possibilities there.
Next, I asked Ibaraki's Industrial Technology Innovation Center if the bacteria strain for a type of nattō that created fewer strings could be identified, and if that strain could then be reliably cultivated. Receiving a thumbs-up, I began working with the Center to develop the right strain, and in 2014, based on that strain, we came up with the “un-stringy” Mamenoka nattō.
Mamenoka was then developed into a brand, and numerous industry, university and government personnel took part in a project to commodify and sell it overseas. The resulting plan was then taken to the JNCSF, with six companies deciding to come on board.
Market survey in France
In approaching Western markets, we decided to highlight Mamenoka's health qualities so as to avoid price competition. France was chosen as our first European target for three reasons: its rich food culture; the familiarity of the French with fermented products such as cheese and, as a result, their relative comfort with strong food odors; and the popularity of Japanese food in France. We gathered marketing information along with information on rules related to nuclear power and other key export issues.
To effectively link presentation of Mamenoka at trade fairs to business talks, we first needed to bring it to the attention of local buyers, restaurant chefs and trading companies, etc. We informed trading companies with offshore food exporting operations that we had an interesting commodity available, and also consulted a chef with a cooking school in Europe, eliciting very positive feedback.
Off to France
In January 2015, Mamenoka made its debut at the international catering, hotel and food trade fair SIRHA in Lyon, France, where we pitched it to buyers and restaurant chefs, etc., and engaged in business talks to develop sales channels. The personnel sent along from the six Japanese companies had no experience with overseas sales and were also worried about the language barrier, so at first they struggled to attract visitors to the booth. Eventually, however, they ventured out into the corridors to greet passers-by with “s'il vous plait manger” (“please try this”), and that simple French phrase—written on pieces of paper clutched in sweaty hands to remind themselves—brought in a whole throng of visitors to try Mamenoka and Mamenoka-based dishes.
Shortly afterwards, a chef who tried Mamenoka suggested that it would go well with olive oil. When we rushed out to a nearby store to buy some olive oil to put out for people to try, it was so popular that all our samples—more than 2,000 a day—would vanish in a matter of hours.
It emerged that while people had seen nattō in stores, it wasn't really accompanied by suggestions as to how it could be used. We addressed this issue by having a Japanese chef with a deep knowledge of French cuisine prepare some recipes using Mamenoka in traditional French dishes. Seeing how well the recipes were received by retail stores really drove home the importance of matching products to local palates.
Another visitor to our booth was a pie manufacturer who wanted to see Mamenoka tested as a pie topping. When we tried it, the manufacturer immediately noticed that Mamenoka went well with unexpected foods such as fruit (particularly blueberries) and salad. That was the moment that we realized that introducing a product which has a fixed image at home (“nattō as something that goes on rice”) into a different food culture requires thinking about how to match that product to the local food culture.
Over the five days of the fair, we counted 119 restaurants and retail stores saying that they wanted to try using Mamenoka. Following that success in Lyon, we gave presentations at the 2015 Anuga Food Fair (the world's leading food fair for the retail trade and the food service and catering market) in Cologne, the Foodex trade event, and other international trade fairs, where Mamenoka was also warmly received.
Possibilities and challenges
Many of the Michelin chefs and buyers that we met indicated that they wanted to try Mamenoka as a food product or a commodity. Having come to the fair in search of new food products, more than a few visitors pounced upon Mamenoka with evident delight and carried away their own sample. A few days after the fair, the owner-chef of Le Relais Louis XIII, a Michelin two-star restaurant in Paris, treated us to his own Mamenoka dish.
After we got back to Japan, three companies began developing a freeze-dried nattō product that could be sold at room temperature and used as a topping, and the possibilities look good for creating new commodities from a very traditional product.
The key issues ahead will be to identify the right buyers, distributors, and local cold chains. My sense is also that we will need to press on with the development of products and packing for storage at room temperature, while also building up a good performance record overseas which we can use in actively marketing our goods to distributors. The plan now is therefore to go to the next trade fair in Germany with a strong and unique range of products to target importers with frozen distribution networks.