Natto, along with uni, and konnyaku, make up the top three Japanese foods that scare the bejesus out of people. None of these foods actually tastes bad. I think they are scary due to their strange textures. I have read countless websites and books that say these foods are an “acquired taste”. Acquired taste is a cheap way of saying people don’t like them. And by not liking them, you need to explain yourself.
Uni is sea urchin. It is a yellowish fishy tasting paste that looks similar to roofing caulk. Just when you were getting comfortable at that sushi restaurant, just when you where getting the hang of raw fish and chopsticks, someone orders uni to humble you.
Konnyaku is a slimy translucent potato like substance with shapeshifting powers. Sometimes it looks like noodles, sometimes it looks like a bar of soap. Either way, you always see it in your meal and ask yourself, “what is this stuff?”
But we are here to discuss the granddaddy of all scary Japanese foods; Natto.
What is natto, and what does it want with us?
I stole this line from Will Ferguson; Writer, Japan observer, and all around inspiration of mine. He says it in his book Hitching Rides with Buddha. Though I read it more than 10 years ago, that line still makes me laugh. I say it to myself every time I eat “strange” Japanese food. Will uses it to describe konnyaku. By I feel it applies nicely to all three of these foods.
“Natto” is soybeans that are fermented with a bacterium called Bacillus subtilis natto. Thus the name. It is infamous for its strong stinky-cheese like smell and slimy texture. The main difference here is that the Japanese proudly eat all Japanese food. That includes uni and konnyaku. But natto is the shining stand out. It is the only Japanese food I’ve found that even the Japanese detest. They love it or hate it. For most foreigners in Japan, it seems to be the main litmus test by which the Japanese will judge you.
You will almost certainly be put in the following situation, at least once, on a trip to Japan: A Japanese person will ask you if you like Japanese food. If you answer with a hesitant “No”, then no further questions are asked. This is the answer they were expecting.
If you answer “yes”, they immediately follow up by asking you if you like natto. If you are unfortunate to have this conversation in a restaurant the next thing that happens is that natto shows up and you are put to the test. After you try it you will then be asked again; “Do you like natto?”
This is where you have to be careful. The correct answer is “No, I’ve tried it, but I do not like it”. After this is established a round of drinks is ordered and everybody celebrates their new friendship with this kind and honest foreigner. If you say “yes I like natto”. You are obviously lying and just saying that to impress the girls, or worse, the girl’s mothers. You are, from that point on, cast in suspicion and therefore not to be trusted.
Most Japanese people I talk to either like it or want nothing to do with it. Natto seems to be the only polarizing food that the Japanese eat. Its not polarizing for foreigners. they see it, smell it, and say no way.
But the health benefits of natto cannot be underestimated. It is the rare food that combines both types of Vitamin K. Which was a shock to me because I did not even know there was a Vitamin K.
The list of Natto’s health benefits is staggering:
- beautiful skin
- Healthy heart
- vitamin rich
- strong bones
- reduce blood clots
- slow arterial calcification
- enhance liver function.
- encourage urine flow
- helps your immune system
- improve digestion
- helps prevent hair loss
- helps prevent obesity
- helps prevent amzhiemers
COME ON! Are you kidding me. What is this stuff? The Japanese already eat a much healthier diet than most cultures, and natto could arguably be the healthiest food in Japan. So we are talking about the best of the best here, A health food powerhouse. This is in a country with a life expectancy that dominates the world. Not just top 10, They are number one. That is based on a mind-blowing 127 million people. You are welcome to double-check my health benefits list. I’m sure some of them are still being studied. But I’m telling you I did not even write down a definitive list.
There is a Japanese proverb; 良薬は口に苦し (good medicine tastes bitter.) It might as well say good medicine is slimy and stinky. I’m sure this saying has been brought up many times in conjunction with natto.
I find the whole thing fascinating. So in an attempt to understand more about this contentious food, and help other people understand it. I am officially launching…
The Gaijin’s Guide to Natto.
I will attempt to eat every brand of natto I can get my hands on, and then review it accordingly. I will also try the different foods that use natto as one of their ingredients. I welcome any ideas, advice, or recipes that you think are fun to try. Please keep in mind, I am not a food critic, I’m not Japanese, and I don’t particularly like natto. Thus making me the ultimate unbiased tester. Please come back and check on my progress as I eat my way to understanding the Japanese culture.
WARNING: To novice chopstick users (or hashi as they are called in Japanese). Grabbing small slimy round beans with two thin sticks maybe the most frustrating eating experience you will ever have. Please don’t let this influence your opinion of natto. If you hate it, hate it because it smells awful, not because you can’t pick it up. I don’t say this because I’m an expert chopstick user. In fact, I am left handed and do that curl-my-wrist-around thing. So when I eat natto I look like Barrack Obama signing a bill into law. My dirty secret is when nobody is watching, I use a fork.
TESTING EQUIPMENT: I start with plain white rice in a bowl with the natto placed on top. My bowl is a standard ceramic rice bowl acquired from a “hyaku yen” shop (dollar store). It is made in Japan and has cute Sakura flowers on the side to impress the ladies. This, however, has no effect on overall taste. My hashi (chopsticks) are handmade. An omiyage (gift) that was given to me for my birthday. (Hashi make great gifts to give people back home) They also have no effect on the taste.
NOTE: If you’ve reach this page because you misspelled NATO, I just wanted to assure you that we are a peaceful organization. I am member of JNTO, (Japan National Tourist Organization). This has nothing to do with NATO, but after all it’s your bad typing skills that got you here in the first place. You might as well look around and learn a little something about the country of Japan.