Japan Travel Moment: natto

I have eaten many “unconventional” things in the past, including things in Japan that twenty years earlier would have made me gag. At one time, neither Julia nor I would touch sushi, let alone sashimi, yet I had no problem eating raw beef with a raw egg, sea urchin, and I dutifully gulped down every oddity at Suminoyu ryokan, even taking some of Julia’s helpings. I have eaten balut, foie gras, fried cicadas, poi, durian, and smoked caterpillar, so I was pretty confident natto could not frighten me even with its legendary viscous consistency. I sent my friend Yuka a picture and she said I had purchased Okame natto, quite famous, and very delicious. Excellent, I thought, I made the perfect choice. I popped the package open and saw small packets of mustard and soy sauce inside. I put the natto in the microwave for one minute then plopped a dollop of condiments on either side. I dug my chopsticks in and imagined I was eating pork and beans. It didn’t smell bad so that was also a good sign. I lifted a few beans into my mouth and announced that it tasted like beans and that it was “not terrible.” It was, however, hard to describe. It had a metallic taste but no obvious seasoning or spices and the more I ate the more strings of goo stretched from the beans, to my chopsticks, then connected to my mouth like tiny elastic bands. Eventually it looked like I was eating a giant cobweb. When I was nearly done, natto threads dangled from my chin and each new mouthful was like eating a fresh pile of brown, chunky, mucus. After swallowing the last blob and wiping the strands dangling from my chin, I understood why sushi restaurants are ubiquitous, but natto shops have never really caught on. Whenever you visit Japan, you must try natto; it is a truly unique food, even if it tastes like someone sneezed into your pork and beans.

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