There’s so much about Japanese food that I love, but natto (納豆, fermented soybeans) is a culinary minefield. I can understand its health benefits and could probably even get used to the taste of the stuff, but (and this is no doubt a personal failing on my part) I can’t get past the fact that it smells like a foot infection. I’ve been here long enough to know that plenty of foreigners love natto and plenty of Japanese can’t stand it. The default opinion, though, is that “we Japanese love natto, and foreigners can’t eat it.”
It wasn’t always the case, at least in Kansai. In fact, when I first started working in Osaka, c.1989, the standard answer to the textbook question, “Do you like natto?” was “No – that’s Kanto food. We Osakans can’t eat it.” A bit of clever marketing in the early 90s changed that, nearly overnight. Dissenters, of course, still exist, but they keep their opinions to themselves.
Fifteen years on, it’s available in every supermarket or convenience store in Osaka, and it’s on the menu of many a diner, especially the lunch counters that cater to salarymen. I stopped by a gyudon shop for lunch the other day (gyudon is a bowl of thin-sliced beef and green onions on rice), and while waiting for my order to arrive, I looked around to see which of the tired-looking, middle-aged men in the shop had taken off his socks. Naturally, it was just the man on my right stirring up and tucking into his side-dish of natto and raw egg. I didn’t enjoy my lunch.
An import shop in Tennoji tried to popularize Thai tempeh a few years ago, but since I was apparently the only one buying it, they gave up. Tempeh is essentially the same food as natto (although I don’t know the difference, if any, between the fermenting agents used); the extra step, however, of pressing the tempeh into flat blocks during fermentation seems to take away the pong for which natto is so justly famed. I’ve only met one student who had ever eaten tempeh, and she complained that the smell and taste were too mild for her, and it felt funny in her mouth (unlike say, a bracing mouthful of tofu?). A dwindling number of old Kansai folk still audibly complain that natto stinks, has too strong a taste and … feels funny in their mouth.
I’m with the old folks on this one, although it’s ironic that young Osakans (who live in an eternal present) assume it’s a sign of my foreignness that I can’t stand the stuff.