When I eat natto anywhere besides at home, I do it furtively and alone. When I worked in an office, I would time my lunch for 11:45 a.m. or 2 p.m., making a beeline for the fridge when the office kitchen was empty. Then I’d take my Tupperware container of reheated rice and natto to my office, where I’d shut the door and eat quickly, hoping my boss wouldn’t knock or need something. When I finished inhaling my food, I’d wrap the Tupperware in a paper towel, stuff it deep into my bag, and frantically fan my little cubicle with a magazine to make sure none of the funky, nutty smell lingered.
In private, I glory in natto. I look forward to it. I take my time with it. I carefully dice up umeboshi (pickled plum) to whisk in for a sour note and wash my rice an extra time to make sure it’s extra shiny and firm, ready for the caramel froth of fermented soybean I will lovingly pour over it. Sometimes, I boil spaghetti and toss it with butter and soy sauce to make it a salty carb bed for the natto, and then I top it with a shower of shiso leaf chiffonade for an herby, licorice finish. I revel in the slick strings of protein holding the natto together in a loose net, the acrid bite of yellow mustard I make sure to mix in, the velvety mouth-feel. It is one of my most favorite and cherished foods, something that tastes like hickory, earth, and home. If I had to say what I would eat for my last meal on earth, it would be natto.
Natto is a Japanese dish that usually consists of of two simple ingredients: soybeans and bacillus subtilis, or what we in Japanese call 納豆菌 (natto-kin, or natto bacteria). The soybeans are steamed, combined with bacillus subtilis, and left to ferment for roughly 24 hours until they become gloopy, malty, and delicious.
While you can technically make your own natto at home (I once had a coworker who kept a constant rotating batch of fermenting soybeans in his apartment so he could have fresh natto every morning), most people buy it at the supermarket, where it is packaged in tidy square containers that contain the natto, plus one packet of spicy mustard and another of soy sauce. When it’s time to eat, you tear open the mustard and soy sauce, pour them into the natto, and whisk everything into a savory lather with your chopsticks. Then you usually pour it over a bowl of piping-hot steamed white rice. It’s traditionally considered a breakfast food, but for natto enthusiasts like me, it’s an anytime food, high in protein, fiber, and probiotics, delicious not only over rice but also pasta and salad, or even eaten on its own.
But natto is also considered the Big Bad of Japanese cuisine. Every non-American cuisine seems to have one—like how, to some people, it might be cool and trendy to eat Korean barbecue, but those same people shrilly refuse to eat still-living squid. In the case of Japanese food, sushi and ramen are acceptable, but natto is a step too “authentic” for most white people. Google it and the search bar will populate with YouTube videos of white people doing natto challenges and gagging as they deign to try “the world’s stinkiest food.” It is the kind of food that stirs up memories that every Asian kid seems to have of white classmates in the cafeteria making fun of their homemade lunches. (Seriously, who are these white kids who were all coordinated in their effort to make fun of food they didn’t recognize, and how is it possible that those kids have grown up into the kinds of adults who love to order pad thai or vindaloo?) In the context of the white American palate, natto becomes a food that serves to remind us that our food is only okay in certain forms, and that inevitably, the things we love can still be considered alien and disgusting.
For a while, I tried to resolve that disgust. I held on to the belief that I could spin natto. I tried to figure out how I could pitch it to make it appealing and acceptable to the white people I knew. I told myself this was an act of benevolence. Natto was healthy, not to mention delicious. White people were missing out! I could be a natto missionary, a preacher of the soybean gospel! I could be like my coworker who, during one office lunch, went on a 10-minute, nonstop stream-of-consciousness lecture about the benefits of “real cheese.” This person had “spent a lot of time” in France, where people were apparently much healthier because they ate local cheeses made in cheese caves with local bacterial cultures. Surely I could go on a similar rant about how amazing natto was. And if I were really excellent at hawking, if I could accurately enumerate all the ways natto is a perfect food, maybe I could change the minds of natto-haters the world over.
Lately, though, my mind has changed. Perhaps it is growing older, trying to set down the memory of being a lonely girl trying desperately to get the kids in her all-white class to be her friend, even if it meant decreeing to her dismayed mother that sandwiches were the only thing she’d eat for lunch. Maybe it is the recent re-telling of this incident by said mother that washed me in shame and regret anew. Or maybe it’s just the simple fact that I don’t eat much of anything in public anymore thanks to the pandemic, and so every single recent rendezvous with natto has been one of singular pleasure.
Whatever the reason, I’ve decided that I don’t care anymore about convincing white people to abandon their disgust and embrace the greatness of natto. The more I think about pitching natto, the more I realize such an endeavor wouldn’t benefit me in the slightest. Instead, it would be about appeasing the white American palate, trying to answer to its logic of disdain instead of upending it or ignoring it all together. I’d simply be attempting to extend the outposts of white American culinary acceptability, and something else would inevitably replace natto on the same spectrum of disgust.
It doesn’t matter to me if you don’t like natto, if you grimace and wince with barely concealed contempt when you see it or smell it. That has no bearing on the satisfaction I feel when I tear open a white styrofoam container of natto and smell its musk and feel its slippery gloss on my lips. When I’m able to eat in public again, I won’t hide my natto and rice behind a closed door, and I won’t glance around for a wrinkled nose. I will focus instead on the meld of salt, funk, and starch, the perfect bite of crunchy scallion, creamy bean, and hot rice: a mouthful of total homecoming and joy all my own and no one else’s.