We spent all day last Saturday handing out samples and conversing with passersby at the Freestone Fermentation Festival (an annual event held near our hometown of Sebastopol). It was surprisingly well-attended, pulling people from around the country with a wide variety of interests and backgrounds. I personally spoke with farmers, chefs, health enthusiasts, small-scale food producers, journalists, professors, students, concerned mothers, small children who had gotten lost on the way to their Little League game, et cetera. Needless to say, many of them were trying natto for the first time in their lives.
We were one of maybe fifty booths, proffering tastes of fermented food from all over the world; there were multiple varieties of kraut, kimchi, kvass, kefir, kombucha, yogurt, cheese, sourdough bread, tempeh, lacto-fermented olives, chocolate, and on and on and on. The quality and variety of products — and the creative enthusiasm to which they attest — was quite impressive.
I spent a fair amount of time hovering in front of our Megumi booth, asking people for their thoughts and reactions. Conversation frequently focused on the experience of eating natto, and specifically how it differs from other fermented foods. For most people in this crowd, the unique flavors, textures, and health-benefits available in fermented foods are a fact of life; even for them, however, natto remains something of a mystery. Their impressions were actually quite different from what I expected.
Quite a few first-timers enjoyed the fact that natto doesn’t carry the same acidic bite as many other ferments. In comparison to the likes of sauerkraut and kimchi, natto is decidedly soothing, and people were much more apt to comment on this fact rather than its taste or smell — which very few found objectionable.
A woman named Hannah, from the East Bay, might be a typical example: she’d never had natto before, but liked it for its texture. “Creamy. Interesting. I don’t know, it’s not much like anything else I’ve had before.” It’s taste? Even harder to pin down. “Like miso, maybe? Something like that?” We have few references with which we can contextualize the experience.
Another woman thought it tasted nutty. Something like boiled peanuts, she said. “But, no, maybe that’s just because it looks the same. Now I’m not sure.” So she took another sample. “No, it’s not boiled peanuts exactly. I don’t know what it is.” She first tried natto a few years ago, inside a sushi roll; it was surprising, she said, and that was precisely why she liked it. Which may be true for many of us.
My favorite exchange was with the 8-year-old boys who had gotten lost on the way to their baseball game: “Ewwww, that’s weird.” Pause. “Can I have another one?” It seemed a succinct summary of many people’s reactions that day.
Many others said they were buying natto to give to friends, or to highlight at dinner parties. Amongst a certain type of food-lovers, natto holds a special place as an esoteric and somewhat refined experience. Which isn’t to say that people have debaucherous natto-feasts like some do with endangered species of animals, or strange cuts of offal…it is perhaps more comparable to the appreciative interest surrounding the likes of civet coffee, certain artisan cheeses, or good biodynamic wine. It’s a nice thing to sit with, quietly alone, or convivial with others; something to set one day apart from the others.
A man named Jeremy, from Berkeley, had some interesting thoughts to share in this regard. He has a good friend whose Japanese wife used to serve them natto regularly when he would stop by to visit. A cup of tea, some natto, a pleasant conversation — the food was part of a ritual, and has since become something of a symbol of friendship and generosity. It’s a matter of memory as well as taste. But he said the taste, for him, is different than with most other foods. “It’s like they say about pu-erh tea, the taste is from the neck down. It starts in your throat and goes down to your stomach; it’s really not about taste so much as sensation. It’s a feeling you get when you eat.” I asked him what exactly that feeling is, and he was at a loss for specifics. “It’s not always immediate. It’s not obvious. It’s more long-term, like for your health; you feel better in general when you eat natto. So I guess when you actually eat it you’re getting some condensed version of that feeling. It’s healthy. It feels good.”
Overall, the day left us eager for more opportunities to engage with world outside of Japanese food connoisseurs. And it left us feeling optimistic that Americans may one day come to accept natto as a part of their (relatively) standard fare.
For me at least, this possibility appeared most vividly during a brief conversation with Sandor Ellix-Katz (who introduced so many of us to the pleasures of fermented foods with Wild Fermentation). Contrary to the dominant “you love it or you hate it” dogma (see previous post: https://meguminatto.wordpress.com/2011/04/26/how-to-eat-natto/), Sandor didn’t like natto when he first tried it, but has since changed his mind. After a friend served it to him stirred with scrambled eggs, sauteed mushrooms, and chopped fresh onion, he had a revelation; now he eats it often. Which is probably why he plans to include recipes in his new book (slated to come out sometime this year). Sandor’s example, and his endorsement, seem like reason enough to hope for the future of natto in America.