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ABOUT NATTO, THE MYSTERY FOOD

Japan is a wonderful country if you're looking for good food, there's no doubt about that. After all, we are talking about the country whose capital city has the most number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. Japanese food is not only very delectable, but also easy on the eyes.

Japan is also a land of weird food. Maybe it is a difference in palates, but Japanese cuisine often features ingredients that people anywhere else in the world would not think twice before dismissing as "inedible." The most well-known example is probably "shirako," or to put it in laymen's terms, "fish sperm."

It is quite delicious, by the way.

If you are reeling in disgust from the thought of eating piscine genitalia, worry not. I am here to talk about, in my opinion, an even more repulsive food.

I am sure you have heard of natto. It is often translated innocuously as "fermented soybeans," and the Japanese would talk about the health benefits from eating natto. It is also ridiculously cheap: you can get three packs of natto for under 100 yen in supermarkets. Many Japanese eat natto every day - it is a popular dish!

 

That last part is a head-scratcher for me, however, because natto stinks. It is a bunch of overly sticky soy beans that weave webs when you try to pick them up with your chopstick, and it tastes like yesterday's socks.

NOTE: My opinion on this Japanese "delicacy" is purely subjective. You might find it to be the best thing since sliced bread, or you might even have had sliced bread with it.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the Japanese are pretending that they enjoy natto. They don't mean it. They try their best to put on an "oishii" face even though it's obvious they are hiding the pungency with karashi or other seasonings. It's all just a facade they put on because they don't want to offend whoever created it.

So whoever created it must have been someone of power. I tried to research a definitive origin story of the dreaded soybeans, but it seems that the Japanese do not have a clear answer either. There are many theories involving how people "accidentally" discovered natto by preserving cooked soybeans in straw.

One version tells the story of a warlord and his soldiers who were traveling up north. One day when they were cooking soy beans, they got ambushed and had to pack the beans up in straw sacks and start fighting. After the dust settled, they revisited their food and discovered that it had turned into natto. Thinking that throwing away food is a waste ("mottainai" in Japanese), the warlord had the soldiers to eat it with him. He was said to have loved the flavor.

The soldiers? They either feared their boss so much that they had to fake liking it, or they actually really enjoyed it.

What makes me wonder is that in some version of the story, the warlord was simply offered natto by some locals, which implies that natto had been developed by some people in the past before it was widespread. Was it accidental? Could it have been intentional? How exactly did the Eureka moment come to those people? "A great idea hath crossed my mind; let us deliberately make soy beans go bad and so that we may taste them?"

This is some Stonehenge-level mystery I will never unravel.

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