9/29/09 | Natto
[ Currently Eating: Banana Bread ]
For many years now, I’ve had this fantasy about writing an in-depth account of how one should go about eating Nattō. I was planning on putting forth a Fight Club – like listing of The Rules Of Eating Natto and then having a spirited discourse about its odorific dangers and surprising health benefits.
But for some reason, every time I tried to write it, I’d put it off. The psychological effect of describing fermented soybean consumption in gory detail was just too much to tackle.
So a few rules are as far as I got up till now.
And yes, there SHOULD be rules for eating natto. No, they’re not official and some may say they go against the true spirit of Natto consumption. Rule 1 is probably the most controversial. However, I swear by them. They lead to a more pleasant and efficient natto experience. I also have a few corollaries to the rules.
Here you are then, and so on…
The Rules of Eating Natto
1. You don’t mix your natto.
2. You don’t mix your natto.
3. When someone says stop, or goes limp, even if he’s just faking it, the natto eating is over.
4. Only two people per package.
5. One package of natto at a time.
6. They eat natto WITH shirts and napkins.
7. They only eat natto as long as they have to.
8. If this is your first time here, you have to eat the natto.
0. Don’t smell the natto.
1. Don’t get it on your hands or clothes.
2. Before putting in mouth, they hold the natto still, letting the “strings” subside.
3. Natto crystals are tasty good.
4. Smaller beans are often more tender.
5. While eating natto, you don’t think of boogers, spit or Aliens (the movie)
Yes, Natto is some serious stuff. Because it doesn’t have a really bizarre look like Durian or a cool name like Lutefisk, it sort of lurks under the radar for weird Japanese foods. But oh, it’s weird all right.
To my knowledge,
neither Anthony Bourdain nor Andrew Zimmern has not tried it yet. (Oops, I was informed that Bourdain has tried it, as described in his book. However, he did not write up Fight Club rules like I did.) Actually, the Zimmern camp told me that he hadn’t, but they weren’t sure. I heartily suggest they include these beans on their next trip to Japan.
OK, here is a confession. I grew up eating this stuff. It’s a tiny part of my Japanese heritage that still shines feebly through an Americanized life. Whenever people ask why I hate wasabi with a passion and avoid sashimi like the plague, I can just say – well, I eat Natto, so how about you give me a break. That said, I’m no expert in Natto. We just eat it at home occasionally.
To be truthful, there is probably a large segment of the Japanese population that HATES the stuff. I’m not going to speculate, but among the JAs here that I’ve asked, only about 1/3 will eat Natto. As far as Hakujin folks (white Americans) go, I think I know exactly two people who have tried it before. If you frequent sushi restaurants, you may have noticed a “Natto Roll” buried in the menu. I’ve never gotten it, so I’m curious what it looks like. I’ve only eaten it on top of rice. I’m told they also eat it on toast occasionally, like Vegemite.
Natto is Rotten, Smelly, Slimy Soybeans. You can call them “fermented” if you like. It still comes down to smelly beans at the end of the day.
They’re usually sold in small styrofoam boxes, three to a package due to the fear of the number four (ask me one of these days about the many ways my relatives’ fear of that number has inconvenienced my life). They usually, but not always come with two small condiment packets inside. One is a soy sauce type mixture and the other is yellow spicy mustard. They have different sizes of beans – we usually like to get the smaller ones because they seem more tender. The price seems to vary greatly – anywhere from 75 cents for 3 boxes to a couple bucks. But it’s usually cheap enough.
You can freeze natto packages, and they will usually come back fine after defrosting in the refrigerator for a day or two. The bean texture may not be as good, but it’s edible. We usually buy two 3-packs and put one in the freezer.
Now, as to the eating of Natto. Let’s go over some of the Rules from before. I’m pretty controverial (according to my mom and most articles about natto), but I never, ever stir the package up. Apparently, the more frothy and slimy that you can get the beans, the more rapturous of an experience you’ll have.
Most people like to stir it up, but I like to disturb the beans as little as possible en route to my mouth. Let me back up a bit. Before eating a package of natto, you need to prepare your area. The problem with natto is not only the smell itself, but it’s stringy and slimy texture which tends to get all over the place ESPECIALLY if you’ve stirred the stuff up. So, I like to put a paper towel underneath the package and covering my placemat. I keep another two napkins handy. You might not want to wear your best clothes when eating the stuff as well. Or at least, plan to wash your shirt if you get natto goop on it.
Ok, so put your rice in a bowl, on the napkin as well. I prefer a larger soup style bowl instead of a smaller one because it decreases the mess. Open the natto package and bend the connected styrofoam lid back so it stays put. I chuck the yellow mustard, but you might like it (especially if you’re a Stirrer). The soy sauce flavoring packet usually improves things considerably. The top of the natto is “protected” from the lid by a thin sheet of plastic. Grasp a corner of that and pull it off slowly onto the styrofoam lid. See the slimy strings? Imagine that multiplied by 10 if you had stirred that up.
For me, controlled speed is the essence of good natto eating. You want to consume it carefully, but without dilly-dallying. The idea is to scoop up some natto carefully with chopsticks (or a fork, spoon, or spork). Before bringing it to the rice, let the strings subside. It’s pretty amazing how long they last. Place it on the rice, then use the chopsticks to scoop the undisturbed natto and some rice into your mouth. Don’t sit back and eat it – get your face over the bowl, for the love of god. Open your mouth as wide as possible, like you’re at the dentist. (You may want to listen to soft Top 40 music as well, it may help.) Sometimes, I skip the combination of rice and natto and just eat some natto first by itself, and then go for the rice. People who stir it up often like to dump the whole mess on top of rice. If you do that, you’re on your own.
I would seriously suggest you avoid sharing your natto package with others. This increases the tendency for smelly slime to get everywhere. This isn’t the type of thing you want to pass around the table for everyone to sample. But, if you must, two people can share one box. Just make sure you put napkins underneath the area.
Oh, so I guess one of the more important corollaries is NOT to smell the natto. I mean, just don’t go out of your way and put your nose right up to it. That Zimmern guy is cool, but he has the unfortunate habit of sticking his nose into whatever weird food he’s eating and taking a long whiff. I understand he wants the “full experience”, but think he’d be a lot less grossed out by some of the food if he just ate it instead of inhaling it. Anyhow, trust me, just eating natto is enough of an experience. I’ll save you the trouble of smelling it – it smells like ammonia mixed with stinky cheese and toejams. Yum!
I’ve heard that some people are more disturbed by the “slimy” texture of natto than the smell. It’s hard to describe without saying the texture is like loogies. The closest common food item I can think of is the inside of an okra pod. That slime is almost the exact same texture. Now imagine a slimy, smelly okra pod. Again, if you don’t stir the natto up, you’ll have less of that slimy texture.
One of the weird things about natto are the tiny crystal formations that sometimes appear. Yes, crystals. Not every package of natto has them, but I actually find them pleasant, adding a bit of crunch. I’m not sure if this is mold, bacteria action, or what, but it’s interesting (and I hope, not bad for you). Again, if you stir it up, you’re not going to notice the crystals that much. The taste of natto by itself is difficult to describe, since it’s colored by the soy sauce package or mustard. It has a slight bitter tinge to the bean taste.
You might be wondering why some people eat this if it’s such a smelly, slimy proposition. There are supposed to be a whole host of health benefits, which I won’t get into. I just like the art of Eating of Natto as an experience. It really feels like you’re going into battle. With chopsticks a-ready. I don’t expect you’ll like it, but you should at least give it a try one of these days.
[Editor's Note: I hope that y'all know my natto paranoia is in jest. Well, sort of. One other tip: after eating natto, you may want to switch out your bowl for a new one. Natto tends to "contaminate" other foods with it's taste, smell and slime. Also, I usually wash my mouth right afterwards. Wipe down the table and placemats. And don't go kissing each other right after eating it...]