trv (trevmex) wrote,

Natto - Japan's biggest practical joke

(This is an article I wrote for the foreign community newsletter in Shimane)
Natto, or fermented soy beans, is a tasty and delicious Japanese foodstuff. Or at least that is what Japanese proclaim. For the foreigner living in Japan, it is perhaps the most well known practical joke that Japanese people can play. It is wise to know what it is all about before taking the dive.
I still recall my first experience with Natto as a foreign exchange student. My host mother looked at me with a gleam in her eye and said "We are having Natto today!" At this point I had little idea what this adventure for the mouth was, but I had been warned that it is bad. Not wanting to disappoint my host family I determined that I would like Natto no matter what it tasted like, but taste is only part of the adventure.
The experience is fascinating, and in every stage of preparation and consumption seems to have one sole purpose: to gross people out. Natto comes in small square Styrofoam containers and at first glance looks like a bunch of white beans past their expiration date. Added to this delightful mix is often a raw egg. The raw egg and spoiled beans, which are already gooey to start with, are then mixed vigorously with chopsticks for maximum gooeyness. Often the rotten bean/egg mix is raised up with the chopsticks to demonstrate just how gross the concoction really is.
Next comes the eating of the beast. Often it is eaten over rice, or even grosser, it can be mixed in with salad bits to make the Natto salad, a school lunch favorite. Eating Natto is a struggle and if not eaten carefully the gooey gunk gets everywhere. This will make Japanese people laugh, but it really is not much fun. To eat the goods without disaster it is recommended that the bowl or dish with the Natto in it is lifted close to the mouth, then some Natto with rice (or by itself if in Natto salad) is taken with the chopsticks and put in the mouth. So far this is normal eating etiquette, but the Natto will leave a trail of slime from the plate to the mouth. To fix this the chopsticks are then spun around and around the slime until the trail is broken and then the chopsticks can be cleaned in the mouth.
For most people the reason Natto is disliked is not for the taste, which is wholly unremarkable in its blandness on par with most Japanese delicacies, but for the texture, which, as you can imagine from the description of how to prepare and eat it, is about the consistency of runny snot or other such unsavory analogies. Master eating this unique foodstuff and Japanese people will be impressed and amazed. They expect foreigners to dislike it, so my strong advice is to break their stereotypes and do not fall for what is considered by many as the biggest Japanese practical joke of all.
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