I checked today’s school lunch menu to see what I should be looking forward to later in the day. Going down the list, I came across one dreaded item: なっとう (natto).
I had to read it over again to make sure I had gotten it right. Natto? THAT natto? Maybe they mean something else? Is it really written on here? Are kids actually going to eat it? How can I avoid eating it?
In case you don’t know what natto is, let me give you a description: It’s a disgusting brown mess of expired baked beans mixed with snot that’s been sitting next to a garbage dumpster for a week. At least that’s what it looks, smells, and tastes like. You know the phrase, “Never judge a book by its cover”? Well, natto tastes just as bad as it looks.
Now let me tell you what natto actually is: Fermented soybeans. It’s notorious for its terrible smell, as well as the extremely sticky, slimy residue that resembles a mixture of glue and mucus, and when stretched it leaves these spider-web like strands that stick to anything they touch. Don’t think that this is some weird thing that only Japanese people eat; there are even Japanese people who hate natto, and there are foreigners who like it.
The first time I tried natto was five years ago, when I was staying with a host family for a week and they took me to a kaiten zushi (the place that serves sushi on conveyor belts). One of the things they had me try was a roll with a little bit of natto in it. I put it in my mouth and started chewing, thinking, “Well, this isn’t bad–” and then the taste came. It was so strong and gross that I vowed never to eat natto again. If it was THAT bad with rice, how bad could it be without it?
I know people who hated natto at first and then became used to it. It’s an acquired taste, though I’m not sure why anyone would willingly acquire it, besides the fact that it’s healthy. Guess what else is healthy? Edamame, tofu, lima beans, eggplant, carrots…
I saw that the paper cup the natto came in said “においひかえめ,” or that the smell was removed. Well, that makes it a little more tolerable, I thought. I was originally planning to not eat it at all, but since the smell was taken out I decided I could focus more on the taste and decide once and for all if I could eat it.
Inside the paper cup, there was a mound of natto covered by a plastic film, and on top of that were packets of soy sauce and mustard. I put the soy sauce in it and started mixing with my chopsticks, and cringed at the sight of the slime activating. After I finished I took my chopsticks out and the slime stretched and clung to my chopsticks, leaving strands of sticky grossness that I had to clean off with a tissue.
I was eating with the 3rd grade class, and one of the boys asked if I liked natto. “I hate it,” I answered. “Me too,” he said. The girl sitting next to me said she liked it. When the teacher heard, she told me that it was absolutely fine if I don’t eat it. Still, I tried a single fermented bean and kept it at the tip of my tongue as I chewed. It wasn’t as bad as I remembered, but it was still a very strong flavor. I think the soy sauce made it more tolerable. Nonetheless, I gave up on it and threw it away.
As much as I hate natto, if you haven’t tried it, I recommend that you do, just as an experience. It’s one of those foods that most people either love or hate. Try looking for a kind of natto that has the smell removed from it, to make it easier.
If you have tried natto and you think I’m some immature little child for saying how gross it is, I really don’t care. I also don’t like sashimi (sliced raw fish), root beer, or cheesecake. But I do love Spanish olives straight from the jar, as well as cauliflower and tofu that ISN’T transformed into some kind of false meat. To each his own…and you can’t deny that natto slime DOES look like mucus.