Acquiring a taste for foreign ‘food’
By DAVE KIFFER
August 02, 2015
Ketchikan, Alaska - "It's a delicacy in Japan."
That was a common refrain in my cannery days.
"It's a delicacy.
"It's a delicacy."
Sea cucumber nostrils?
"It's a delicacy."
You get the idea.
So, natch, checking it out for myself this summer was something I "relished" (NOT a delicacy in Japan).
When you travel to a foreign land you look forward to trying all manner of new food. Things that you would never have considered edible are considered haute cuisine in the new land.
And, sometimes, things that in fact aren't edible find their way to your plate as well.
For example, I have had friends go to Africa and come back extolling all the different tasty ways that "sand" can be prepared.
Other people still swear that no Russian meal is done until you savor a scoop of flaming borscht ice cream.
And in Australia, of course, there is vegemite. It is a Godsend to vegans who can't bear the thought of "meatamite."
Since I have long believed that EVERYTHING is a delicacy in Japan, it was very exciting to go there find out the "ground truth."
And I suppose it doesn't get any more ground truthier than "natto."
Natto is such an "acquired taste," even to the Japanese, that the Imperial Natto Producers Council has spent millions of yen commissioning studies to show its remarkable health benefits.
In America, we know that anytime you have a food item that no one wants to eat (likely because it tastes like baby panda poop), you immediately extol its health benefits.
For example. yummy tasty mouthwatering bacon is - healthwise - very, very, very bad for you.
But broccoli – which, unless it is drowned in BUTTER, tastes like incontinent senior citizen panda poop - is very, very, very good for you.
Charlotte is always telling me that broccoli will make me live longer. But eating broccoli only makes it feel like I am living longer. Much, much longer. Like "waiting in line at the DMV" longer.
But I digress.
Anyway, the Imperial Natto Producers Council wants you to know that natto cures cancer. It also lowers blood pressure, eliminates heart disease and increases male potency.
Not sure about the last claim. Birth rates in Japan seem to be cratering.
At any rate, it seems there is absolutely, positively nothing that super natto can't do.
Every couple of weeks, the Imperial Natto Producers Council trots out the reigning oldest person in Japan to laud natto and claim that she/he eats "nothing but natto" seven times a day. Of course there is some truth to this because only a person who is 173 and completely lacking a sense of taste or smell could eat natto seven times a day.
The best part of eating natto is the reaction of the locals. They watch you eat it with some bemusement. Then they applaud. Then they frequently announce that they "hate the stuff."
So what is natto?
I'm so glad you asked.
It's a delicacy in Japan.
In our part of the world, some folks like to take salmon heads, stick them in a jar and bury them underground for a millennium or so. Then they dig them up and eat them. I could say that natto is like the part of the stinky, six month old fish head that even those people won't eat.
Yes, I have tried natto. More than once.
You see, when they asked me if I "liked" natto, I answered "o nademo taberamas," which was my mantra. "I will eat anything."
Of course, Charlotte is now guffawing loudly because I most certainly will not "eat anything."
The last time I "ate anything" was when we were dating and I wanted to make it seem like I liked Mexican cuisine as much as she did. Sorry to say, I did not. Of course, natto makes refried beans seem positively gourmet.
But, once in Japan, I was going to at least try natto because I was stubborn about being a polite guest, even if it meant eating something that had been sitting around since the Meiji Era gradually fermenting into a rank blob the consistency of a century old jellyfish doudenum.
For those of you playing along at home, natto is fermented bean curd.
Even the people who like it call it "slimy" and "pungent" which I am pretty sure are perjorative words, even in Japanese. But, hey, natto is a superfood. Besides its health benefits, it can make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Mythologically, natto was invented by a samurai war lord a thousand years ago, when his meal of "breakfast beans" was interrupted by a sneak attack. By the time the samurai finally got around to eating his beans much, much, much later, the beans had fermented into natto, which the samurai discovered made his skin impervious to katana blades.
Okay, I made that last part up.
But I sure as heck don't believe the samurai ate the natto and said "my heavens, that's darn tasty."
I believe he threatened to force the other samurai army to eat the "slimy, pungent" concoction and won the battle after the other army decided it would be better to commit ritual seppuku than eat natto. Just a hunch.
Now don't get me wrong, I ate lots of great food in Japan.
My host family had the best restaurant in the town of Gero and I ate very, very, very well. And I liked nearly everything else in Japan besides natto. After eating things like miso katsu and hida beef and okonomiyaki by the barrel (literally, they were insistent that we eat American sized portions), I was the happiest of all culinary tourists.
And I was so happily full that Korean Air slapped an "wide load" sticker on my backside before letting me on the jet.
It was hard not to overeat because in Japan, even familiar foods like crab and shrimp and salmon took on a new flavor because they were so delicately prepared.
Being a Ketchikan kid I was shocked to discover that you didn't need to boil or broil the living daylights out of seafood before eating it. Who would have thunk it?
Unfortunately, there was one other food that failed me. Or perhaps I failed it.
It was called "shiokara."
Shiokara is 10 percent salt, 30 percent malted rice and 60 percent pureed fermented seafood viscera.
Yep, you read that right.
The only thing that we always threw out in the cannery days is also a "delicacy in Japan." Pureed crab entrails, anyone?
I won't even begin to try to explain what it tastes like. There is nothing that I could say in such polite company, gentle readers, that would do shiokara justice without causing you to spend an inordinate amount of time praying to the porcelain goddess.
Suffice it to say, that while I managed to eat natto multiple times for the amusement of the locals, I barely managed to gag down shiokara once. And it didn't stay down much longer than my next trip to the bathroom.
Naturally, this past week the Imperial Shiokara Producers Council sent out a press release crediting shiokara consumption with ending the stalemate between the US and Iran over nuclear development. And, the council also notes, shiokara has been found to have a higher aphrodisiac effect than powdered unicorn horns.
Apparently next up for superfood shiokara: The menus of both the White House and the Congressional Dining Rooms.
I'm just not sure that either side will have the guts to try it.
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Dave Kiffer is a freelance
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