Learning to Love Natto
Monday, March 31, 2014
The first time I ordered natto in a Japanese restaurant my server eyed me skeptically and said, “Are you sure?”
It only made me want it more.
Then the fermented soybeans arrived, and I instantly understood. The stuff looked like a swamp and smelled like old socks. Each bean seemed to be held prisoner in a thick, slimy, metallic-tasting membrane. And the taste? The first rush on the tongue was sour and earthy. Then came a lingering bitterness that not even rice could temper.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. How could so many of my Japanese friends revere something I found so utterly disgusting? It was a challenge. I began ordering it all the time. When a chef told me he was convinced that every natto-loving white person was a liar I was all the more determined to learn to love the stuff.
Legend has it that natto was created by accident. Japanese soldiers stored boiled soybeans in straw and forgot about them for a few days. When the straw was unwrapped, the beans were covered in their classic stringy film—the magic of bacillus natto, a wild bacteria prevalent in wheat and rice straw. Maybe it’s true: until the bacteria was isolated in a laboratory, natto was a strictly seasonal food.
I kept eating funky fermented soy beans, and one day I discovered that I not only liked natto, I craved its nutty quality, its strangely appealing texture, its umami-rich flavor. Last week, at the little izakaya Yopparai I discovered homemade natto on the menu. When I ordered it the server eyed me skeptically. "Are you sure?” she said.