Japan from the inside out

It’s natto for everybody

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 20, 2010

THREE JAPANESE MEN who became friends when I was studying the language at an American university invited me to dinner at the apartment they shared. We met when they saw me puzzling my way through a Tanizaki novel in the student union, and they struck up a conversation.

It was late spring, and guys will be guys, so the meal was an informal affair—make-it-yourself makizushi (rolled sushi). One of the ingredients they offered with the rice and the dark green nori rolling material was natto, fermented soybeans sold in a commercial package. It’s made with special bacteria that give it a distinctive odor and taste that cause even some Japanese to wrinkle their nose. Pick it up with chopsticks and you’ll see that it’s coated in transparent, stringy gloop.

One of them said, “You probably won’t like this. Foreigners usually don’t.”

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said that one of the secrets to establishing good relations with people from overseas is to eat whatever they offer you. The reason they’re serving it is because they consider it a special treat, after all. I thought I could use that advice to my advantage, because I’ve always been willing to eat anything once.

That’s why I slathered a generous serving of natto into the middle of the rice and rolled it up. It certainly got their attention.

I took a bite and almost gagged.

“What do you think?”

There’s no backing down when you’re in that far, especially for a young man among young men, so I gulped it down and told them it was great. They actually believed me. I stuck with natto makizushi the rest of the night, though I gradually reduced the proportion of natto to rice after that.

Wouldn’t you know it? They invited me back for dinner a month later, and when I got there, one of them said, “You liked natto so much last time we decided to have it again tonight.”

My wife thinks that no dinner is complete without natto, but she didn’t force it on me. Shortly after getting married, I saw a television program that presented convincing evidence for its nutritious and healthful properties, so I steeled myself to trying it again. She heard that mixing the natto with grated daikon radish reduces the odor and the stickiness, and that got me eating it every day. After about a year, she decided it was too much trouble to keep grating the daikon, but by then I had gotten used to it. Now I consider it health food.

The Japanese aren’t sure when they started eating natto, but it was a long time ago. They’ve figured out their ancestors had the technical means for making it in the Yayoi period (300 BC-300 AD), but the oldest documentary evidence for its consumption comes from the mid-11th century in the book Shinsaru Goki by Fujiwara no Akihira (989?-1066), a Confucian scholar and man of letters. He listed shiokarai natto (salty natto) as one of his favorite foods. To put that in perspective, they’ve been eating it in Japan before William the Conqueror’s victory in the Battle of Hastings.

In the Edo period (1603-1868), peddlers hawked it in the streets of Kyoto and Edo every morning. It was also a regular menu item for soldiers and sailors during the war.

The governor and Miss Natto

Despite that illustrious history, the Natto Cooperative Society Federation of Japan (Japanese only) still works to promote the food. Since 2005, they’ve selected an attractive young woman to serve as Miss Natto and publicize the dish nationwide. This year, the reigning Miss Natto is Tashiro Sayaka, who is the fourth in line. Last month, she paid a courtesy call on Nara Gov. Arai Shogo, as you can see from the photo.

There’s a reason Nara was selected for the promotion. The ancient capital was established in Nara in 710, and this year they’re commemorating the 1,300th anniversary.

The Japanese have long used a linguistic device called goroawase, in which syllables or short words from one expression are combined to create other words or expressions for an interesting or comic effect. It’s often employed in TV commercials using the variants for the pronunciation of numbers to create a word or expression that makes it easy to remember a telephone number, for example.

In Japanese, a child could convert natto into 710.

Said Ms. Tashiro at her meeting with the governor:

There are probably many people who hate natto and don’t eat it, but I really wish they would because it’s very healthful. I recommend natto toast. Spread some natto and cheese on bread and toast it.

She’s right, it’s as healthful as the dickens, but dumping it on top of white bread and the rubberized melty cheese they sell in supermarkets might negate its benefits. The governor has his own favorite:

Natto became popular when I was a college student, and I like it now. I think it’s good to mix with nori and eat like a snack.

Mr. Arai likes it now? Does that mean he too didn’t like it at first and had to grow accustomed to it? It’s not out of the question.

If the idea of natto cheese toast or a natto/nori snack doesn’t whet your appetite, take a look at this post about the natto rolled cake a high school class invented. It looks scrumptious.

They sold out, too.

And if that doesn’t convince you, think of this: Eating it might make a natto angel out of you!

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5 Responses to “It’s natto for everybody”

  1. Nicolas Cueto said

    Thanks for this, Ampontan. Brought back memories.

    Today, natto — large-beans, small-beans, even that rough handmade natto wrapped in rice-stalks — it’s all like well-aged cheese for these taste-buds. Such deep umami!

    But those first few years in Japan…

    My resistance lasted until a temakizushi family-dinner at a headmaster’s home, when they all urged me to roll-up some finely chopped natto (mijinkiri-natto) pre-mixed with roasted sesame seeds. The rice camouflage, the not having to bite thru whole natto-bean texture, and the sliminess/stink masked by the sesame made for a very happy surprise. Highly recommend this excellent method of initiation!

  2. mac said

    Now, if you REALLY want to be put off your dinner/breakfast, you could also get scientific about the whole thing.

    ‘Effect of miso soup containing Natto on the composition and metabolic activity of the human faecal flora’ by Tomohiko Fujisawaa; Kenji Shinoharaa; Yoko Kishimotoa; Atsushi Teradaa, Laboratory of Food Hygiene, Faculty of Applied Life Science, Nippon Veterinary and Animal Science University, Tokyo, Japan

    The results indicated that consumption of natto miso soup improved the intestinal environment of the volunteers.

    I only found it as I love using natto last ingredient in soups or stews as an added protein and so make a creamier sauce, and I was trying to find if this was a non-traditional use.

    I learn cooking with Japanese foods abroad and by experimentation. I find Japanese people are for the most part strangely conservative about how they use and prepare their food and ingredients. This inflexibility is worst in restaurants when they will just do what they do and any modification at all draws something from blank stares, to sub-managerial panic, to committed and recalcitrant illogic.

    The idea that the customer can have what the customer wants if the customer is willing to pay just has not gotten here yet. It is stupid to the point of ignorance.

    Yes, natto crushed on a good quality toast with tomatoes, olive oil, black pepper and some other savories is a great use but, a) not with cheese and b) where are you going to get a good quality bread in Japan!!! Ha. That is the question.

    What REALLY pees me off though, is the environmental burden of all those non-decomposing expanded polystyrene trays for so little product. The cardboard ones are not always easily found and even the expensive rice wrapped ones now come wrapped in plastics. Japan has to stop wrapping and packing things and go back to the old ways.

    It has to stop.

  3. camphortree said

    It was when my daughter was a kindergartner she gulped natto when I called it Japanese secret cheese beans. I called mochi Japanese secret chewing gum rice for her.
    Soon after she discovered a volcanic type rock with a lot of holes at the Boise River shore. When she brought it home I cried, “It’s a soup-stone! I have heard about that long, long ago!” She put the rock in a bowl of water before going to bed. By the next morning the water would turn into a bowl of minestorone with macaroni, carrot, green pepper, celery and onion which she ate for breakfast with toast.
    She got that soup making magical power by eating natto.
    C: Clever!

    – A

  4. InJM said

    Natto? Bleh. Dried sour plums? Now that’s good stuff.

  5. Joel said

    My wife and I yesterday impressed our hosts at a tiny, isolated ryokan on the boundary of Gifu and Toyama prefectures when we demolished large bowls of natto (carefully covered with saran wrap to keep in the smell) at breakfast. It’s definitely health food, and a great contributor to dishes of nebaneba stickiness for summer refreshment.

    (Once you get past the smell, limburger cheese doesn’t taste that bad, either.)

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