Staring down at the brown, slimy, nubby-looking food in a Narita hotel, I am jet-lagged and warned not to do what, of course, I am about to do. I ate it anyway, and, as foreseen, it was god-awful. The first time I tried fermented soy beans or "natto" was the morning after I moved to Japan.
Since then, over a year has passed, and my dislike for the traditional Kanto-area Japanese food has miraculously lessened. And that seems to be a theme among some expats' time in Japan.
(A lot of) Westerners (really) hate natto because it is, in short, freaky as hell. And I'm not disputing that, but I have acquired a taste for it and even like it now. Of course, many foods which are unfamiliar to us can seem strange. In reality, the dish just takes some getting used to. In particular, it has textures and smells which westerners rarely -- if ever -- encounter.
- It's slimy and sticky to the touch, as if it has a thin gel coating.
- Unwrapping it, the slime sticks to the wax paper creating a weird situation of gooey micro Silly String -- not quite a string, not quite a liquid but always messy. (Sorry for the 90s reference. Guess I'm feeling nostalgic today.)
- Its aroma is like someone mixed old socks with moldy mushrooms.
- Often, it requires sauce and yellow mustard to make it tasty enough to eat, or it has to have a complementary ingredient like rice or egg.
So, why eat it?
Natto is a bean and is packed with protein and carbohydrates. It also contains probiotic.
I can see why people eat it for breakfast... I get a lot of energy for the day.
It's 78 yen for three small containers of it. (Usually they are stacked, styrofoam containers with natto, natto sauce and yellow mustard. If you eat one for breakfast each day, that's a 26 yen meal. If Japan is anything, it's resourceful.
You can buy them pretty much at any convenience store.
So what's the verdict, here?
All of these things, for me, overpower the strangeness (from what my taste buds are used to) of natto and helped me acquire a taste for it. But, this isn't to say all Japanese people love natto, either. (Remember: Every situation is different.)
According to an article by the Japan Times Newspaper, "People from the west and south of the country tend not to like it. But people from the east and the north usually love it." It seems to be an all-or-nothing sort of deal.
Still, I've met plenty of people from the eastern Japan, who don't prefer the pungent food. Additionally, using the Question function of JapanTravel.com (as useful as it is interesting!), I asked for people's responses about if they like the fermented food. Those who said they acquired a taste for it relayed that it was mostly for health reasons. If this hasn't yet inspired you to try natto, maybe these natto dishes will. Be brave, people.
6 ways JapanTravelers eat natto
- On toast, with cheese
- Over rice
- With soy sauce
- Omellette natto
- With cheese
- Top it with avocado and strips of dried nori (seaweed paper)