Domo Arigato, Mr. Natto

Learning to love Japans stinky weapon of culinary destruction

Photo by Jessica CalkinsNever a day passes that this portly penman doesn't give thanks to Zeus for granting me the good fortune to marry my Japanese-born bride. Not only has this allowed me to sidestep all those SUV-driving, yoga-practicing, latte-chugging Sex in the City wannabes out there in whitebread land, but it has also paid the added dividend of daily exposure to the food and culture of Japan.

As a result, I've grown fond of all things Nipponese: sashimi, sake, green-tea ice cream and sticky rice, to name a few. I've even gotten used to those wacky Japanese comedies where grown men and women dress up like badgers and play silly word games. (Yes, there's more than one.) But until lately, I had yet to acquire a taste for a funky dish dear to the hearts of all Japanese: natto.

Natto is a gooey concoction of fermented soybeans served over rice as a side dish or for breakfast and often topped with soy sauce or mustard. Supposedly, natto was discovered during Japan's Edo period (1603-1867) by a famished samurai who came upon a bunch of moldy soybeans in a pile of straw, ate them and thereby sustained himself for the duration of his arduous journey. Now natto is one of the most common food products in Japan, as uniquely Japanese as sushi or miso soup.

Still, you'll be hard-pressed to find natto on the menus of Japanese restaurants because, for the most part, it's one of those things people make for themselves at home. Sort of like our mac 'n' cheese. Except our mac n'cheese never smelled like this! Whew! I don't know what Japanese actor Beat Takeshi's feet smell like after a sweaty day of kicking yakuza butt, but I imagine it's something like a fresh bowl of natto.

Even if you get past the aroma, there's still the taste and texture. The Japanese love to watch kuru-kuru gaijin (crazy foreigners) gag as they try to get down a mouthful of natto. Actually, the taste is the easy part as it reminds me of such musty foods as truffles and brie. The texture is similar to boiled, cut okra; as you mix the beans into the rice, cobweb-like tendrils form that inevitably follow the beans from the bowl to your mouth. The sliminess does not dissipate as you chew. In fact, as you swallow, you can almost visualize the brown, glutinous mass of beans as they sink to the pit of your stomach.

My wife relishes her occasional bowl of natto, but I'd not been able to get past my initial revulsion until recently, when I decided to canvas Japanese markets in the county in search of various types. Perhaps it was only a matter of finding the right brand, I thought, before I could learn to appreciate this odoriferous delicacy.

I stopped by three Japanese grocery stores—all relatively close to one another: Fountain Valley's Ebisu Supermarket and Costa Mesa's Marukai and Mitsuwa markets. Each had large selections of natto refrigerated for freshness, usually in small Styrofoam containers.

Natto is pretty inexpensive, so at each grocer, I ended up splurging on other items. At Marukai, I bought a three-pack of konbu (seaweed) natto for a mere $1.79 and also purchased a clay hakata doll on sale in their gift shop. At Mitsuwa, I picked a pack of shichiku natto deluxe, wrapped in a green-and-white bamboo envelope ($1.59), as well as some pork gyoza (Japanese potstickers, $2.50). At Ebisu, I nabbed a three-pack of kurodaizu, or black natto bean ($2.99), and afterward walked to the nearby newsstand, where I surreptitiously purchased a few Japanese hentai (girlie) mags.

It was the kurodaizu that won my tummy over. I found them less stringy than other natto, with a more robust taste. I seemed to turn a corner with these scrumptious black pellets, and since then, I've come to adore natto noshing, even the especially slimy konbu natto, which I now savor. That's a welcome development as studies show natto is excellent for digestion, lowers your blood pressure, increases stamina and, ahem, puts lead in your proverbial pencil. All the better, my friends, for enjoying my ever-expanding hentai collection.

Ebisu Supermarket, 18930-40 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 962-2108. Open Mon.-Sat., 9:30 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun., 9:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; Marukai Market, 2975 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, (714) 751-8433. Open Mon.-Sat., 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun., 9 a.m.-8 p.m.; Mitsuwa Marketplace, 655 Paularino Ave., Costa Mesa, (714) 557-6699. Open Mon.-Sun., 9 a.m.-8 p.m.

 
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