Natto vs. Tempeh: Differences & Uses

Natto vs. Tempeh
Share on:

If you like Asian cuisine, you have probably heard of natto and tempeh. Still, people rarely know what they actually are. Both made of soy, both delicious, very versatile, and frequently used, natto and tempeh are becoming increasingly popular in the Western world. But, what are the differences between natto and tempeh? 

Natto is a Japanese food made with fermented soybeans and is mostly used as a garnish or an ingredient in other dishes. Tempeh has Indonesian origin, is also made with fermented soybeans, and is often used as a meat substitute. 

Although natto and tempeh are both made with fermented soybeans, they are very different and have different uses. I use and love them both, but knowing where and how to use them makes a huge difference. So, in this article, I will tell you all about natto and tempeh so you can enjoy them to the fullest. 


Both natto and tempeh are very old and believed to have originated more than a thousand years ago. The exact emergence of both is still unknown. 

Natto originated in Japan, while tempeh in Indonesia. 

Natto is believed to have appeared by accident, as all the greatest inventions do. Back then, refrigeration was not possible, so people fermented their food. However, wild fermentation would often take place when food interacted with the elements taking a path of its own. 

So, it’s basically a product of that wild fermentation. Of course, the recipe changed and improved over time, but the result is still the same: a delicious, fermented superfood. 

Tempeh is believed to have appeared intentionally, as the fermentation process requires a more specific making process and is less likely to have occurred on its own. The word “tempeh” refers collectively to fermented foods (mostly cooked and fermented legumes) with a specific mold called Rhizopus. 

However, soy tempeh is the best-known one, so today, tempeh refers to fermented soybeans. People back then made it as a meat substitute, which is how tempeh is used to this day. 


Slimy appearance of natto vs. a sliced mass of tempeh

Although both are made with soybeans, the two don’t look similar at all. Natto has a slimy appearance, the soybeans are connected with slimy threads, but you can still see the individual beans. A bowl of natto appears just like a bowl of regular soybeans but is sticky, slimy, and moist. 

Tempeh is a mass, a blob of soybeans. When the soybeans ferment with the process being triggered by the mold, mycelium forms between the beans connecting them into a single unit. They are stuck to each other, forming something that appears like a fruit protein bar. 

Tempeh is dense and resembles a cake or a patty, while natto is still individual soybeans but sticky and slimy. 


Before I get into the specifics of the taste, I must say that I love how they both taste, but I can also understand why someone would prefer one over the other. They are different and have very recognizable and distinct flavors. 

Natto is known for its strong flavor with a hint of umami. It is defined as an acquired flavor due to the specific strain of bacteria used in the fermentation process, which can be highly variable. It is savory, earthy, and slightly pungent.

Tempeh has a nutty and mushroom-like flavor and tastes nothing like natto. Still, some would find similarities in flavor due to the sheer fact that both use soy as the base ingredient. However, if you don’t know that they are both made of soy, I don’t think that you would find them similar.

While the fermented taste dominates in natto, tempeh only hints at fermentation. It is less pungent and milder compared to natto. It also has a more neutral taste that can easily absorb the flavors of other ingredients or seasonings used in cooking. 

Cooking Method 

Since both natto and tempeh are already fermented, meaning that they aren’t raw, you would think that neither requires additional cooking. While that is true for natto, tempeh needs to be further cooked. 

Natto is ready to eat as it is after the fermentation process. Still, some prefer to lightly warm the natto before consuming it, though it isn’t necessary. Natto can be steamed or microwaved, or stir-fried with additional ingredients. I love to combine natto with pork and coleslaw, but it works in many different ways. 

Tempeh is usually cooked before consumption. The cooking process enhances its flavor and improves its texture. You can cook tempeh by steaming, boiling, pan-frying, baking, or grilling it, so just like you would cook meat, but I find it delicious either way.

Serving Style 

Natto served over steamed rice vs. Tempeh grilled and served with rice and grilled zucchini and broccoli 1

When it comes to serving styles, both are very versatile, and you can have them in many different ways and dishes. Still, natto is the less demanding of the two. 

You can serve natto in a bowl and be done with it, as it is intended to work as a standalone dish or a side of another meal. It is often served over a bowl of hot steamed rice and is often accompanied by various condiments like soy sauce or mustard. You can top natto with green onions, nori, grated daikon radish, or raw eggs. It is traditionally included in breakfast dishes but works as a snack or a side. 

Since the primary purpose of tempeh is to substitute for meat, you can serve it just like you would serve meat. You can marinate or season it and use it as a replacement for meat in sandwiches, wraps, or burgers. I love it in a creamy mushroom sauce with fries and salad on the side.

Tempeh is an excellent addition to stir-fries or curries, as it is very absorbent and soaks in the flavors of the other ingredients and seasonings.

Tempeh works excellent when grilled, pan-fried, or sautéed. It develops a crispy exterior and a chewy texture, making it suitable for salads, grain bowls, or as a side dish. I absolutely adore it grilled, and that is how I usually prepare it.


Tempeh and natto cannot substitute for each other, but there are other substitutes you can use to replace one or the other. 

Miso paste is a traditional Japanese fermented soybean paste and a good natto substitute. Still, while you may substitute for the taste, you won’t substitute the texture. Nevertheless, miso paste will definitely do a good job as a natto substitute. 

The most common substitute for tempeh is tofu. It is a soybean product that can be used as a substitute for tempeh in various recipes. 


Natto and tempeh are very popular types of food in their respective regions, i.e., natto is extremely popular in the Far East, i.e., Japan, and tempeh is very popular in South-East Asia, particularly Indonesia. 

Until a while ago, they weren’t so popular in the rest of the world. However, with the reveal of their nutritional values, they are considered superfoods, and their popularity rapidly increases. 

Still, other than at a restaurant, people rarely have these foods otherwise. However, due to their easy preparation, hopefully, more and more people will develop a habit of making natto and tempeh at home.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments