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Japanese Food: Natto
Natto is a foul-smelling sticky web of fermented soybeans typically served with a Japanese breakfast. The smell will make you crazy, and the food will make you strong. That's that some Japanese folks believe. It's like the Japanese vegemite perhaps, or gizzards - a food noxious to foreigners (and many locals) that many natives get a kick of brandishing about. "Real Japanese eat Natto" or "Natto is real Japanese food" I've heard from a bus driver, and various people eating alongside me in rural restaurants.

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JapanTips.net has some Natto health information
I had never heard of Natto before I studied Japanese, and I ate at a lot of Japanese restaurants in the United States. It was Chris Evans who kept asking about it during Japanese class; obviously he felt natto challenged during his high school foreign exchange in Japan. "Do you eat natto?" he was routinely asked - he didn't realize that was an identity question he would need to slot in alongside sexual preference and political affiliation if he was to mingle with the Japanese.

Travelling in Akita, during a mealtime I would be happily chomping away on some foodstuff and a local would remark that I seemed to enjoy Japanese food. I would say, yes, I like all of it. Invariably they ask, "EVEN NATTO?"

Natto resembles bits of hardened fox feces anchored in snot. It's really unusual to eat, especially with chopsticks, though I can't imagine eating it with a fork or spoon. I spend much energy trying to disengage a series of endless threads hanging between the bowl and my mouth.

The flavor is strong like the smell. At first I needed lots of soy sauce, spicy mustard, rice and miso soup to get it down. I'm weaning myself off the condiments. And from what I read, it really is healthy. Loads of vitamins, good for the bloodstream and the bones. Japanese people do live a long time, and they smoke and drink and ingest caffiene to beat the band. A regular bunch of dehydrated people they would seem to be, eating this foul smelling snot.

I first tried natto at a Tokyo Denny's, after staying up all night at Gas Panic and being headbutted by some yayhoo.
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Ayako couldn't stand the smell of Natto. Or maybe it was my zit?
At Denny's, November 2001
Photo by DC
At seven am my stomach was queasy from all that bad juju and yet I had never tried natto so what the heck. Ayako held her nose, she don't like the stuff, though she'll eat it with loads of condiments.

I started eating natto regular when I was staying at semi-rural ryokan and onsens. These places serve a Japanese breakfast of rice, miso, grilled fish, pickled vegetables, seaweed, raw egg, and natto. Maybe it's my grandparents getting to me, maybe it's the fact that I'm hungry most of the time, but I try to clean my plate.

Now I don't mind natto. I enjoy the eating challenge. So it is especially funny when Japanese people make a big deal about it. In February 2002 I stayed at a ryokan; they called me in my room after 9pm to ask me if it was okay to serve natto with my breakfast. Whoo-ee!

Natto Links: (February 2002)

  • Tokyo Classified provides some cultural context for Natto. They place the origin of Natto in the 1600s.
  • JapanTips.net has some health information about Natto, and places the origin of Natto some 4000-12000 years ago. Some disagreement between them and Tokyo Classified.
  • Nattoland has some good pictures, tips and insider information on the production and consumption of Natto.

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