Where to eat natto?

Ippuku is an izakaya in downtown Berkeley that has quickly garnered a reputation for offering good Japanese food that is difficult or impossible to find elsewhere in the Bay Area: grilled mochi with braised pork belly and spicy turnip greens, for example, or chicken skewers composed of esoteric cuts (like knee cartilage), served anywhere from rare to raw. They have many standard yakitori dishes, which are quite good, but the menu seems at its best in the realm of the unexpected.

So it’s probably not surprising that they serve our natto, and that they prepare it like nowhere else: roasted over a hot fire, wrapped in a crispy purse of abura-age. (Abura-age is thinly sliced tofu, deep-fried twice to create air pockets that allow it to be stuffed with goodies like natto. Apparently it is an established fact in Japanese folklore that foxes are fond of deep-fried tofu. Who knew?)

Ippuku uses traditional bincho-tan charcoal, which gives a clean, hot, and sustained flame for easy grilling. (Which, parenthetically, is the same charcoal we use in our natto-steaming process). The chef/owner, Christian Geideman, clearly seeks out the best materia prima he can find, and has created the menu with care. The man behind the grill, Chikara, cooks with a steady hand and an eye for detail. The result is that the flavors, the textures, and the presentation of the various dishes are often striking – even surprising – to all but the most seasoned of izakaya connoisseurs.
A little bit of background: Christian grew up in the Bay Area, and he’s been cooking since he was fifteen. His culinary passions were first awakened when he began working in pan-Asian noodles houses, which eventually led him to research the finer points of udon and soba in Japan. While in Tokyo, however, things shifted. He began spending all his free time at a small yakitori, where he befriended the chef and cooked a few times; he was captivated by the allure of flame-roasted food. So he returned to the States and started saving up for his own yakitori (and izakaya); some years later, Ippuku is the result.

Like most things on the menu, the natto with abura-age is a discovery Christian made in Japan. The process is simple: natto is mixed with diced scallions and stuffed in the pouch of tofu, which is skewered on a stick and grilled briefly at high heat on all sides. The results are delicious: the natto is just warmed; creamy, rich, and offset pleasantly by the charred crispy tofu. It is appealing not only for its taste and texture, but also because (for most of us at least) it really can’t be reproduced at home.

I asked Christian how he eats natto outside of the restaurant, and says he usually goes the simplest, most traditional route: a little soy sauce or spicy mustard mixed in, some diced scallions on top, all served with a bowl of warm rice. “It’s my go-to meal,” he said.

Chikara also tends toward the simpler, more traditional preparations. Soy sauce, mustard, rice…though sometimes he’ll add a little flaked nori, or an egg yolk; “I love it. I eat it almost any way,” He said. “It’s very healthy.”

Unfortunately, though, Chikara’s wife can’t stand the stuff. “Every time I eat it, she asks me, ‘What is that smell?’ ” She often leaves the room. “Some people just don’t like it,” he said, shaking his head thoughtfully. “I can’t understand.”

I asked him if he could think of any ways to prepare natto that might appeal to a conventional Western palate; he thought for a minute, then gave the standard answer: “I don’t know; either you like it or you don’t. It’s difficult to change that.”

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