The nature, culture and living in a small village in Japan just after the last world war, reflected through the boy’s eyes.
Chapter 7 SMELL （1954,55）
Yoshiharu Otsuki (Sendai, Japan)
1. NATTO( continued)
There are usually about 7 general (national, regional and the independent) TV stations – similar to the BBC, ITV etc. in the U.K. – in most areas of Japan. They broadcast various kinds of programmes – news, variety shows, comedy shows, chat shows, political debate programmes, sports, dramas etc. The limit of the diversity of the programmes has forced them to compete intensively with each other for viewers. Most of these programmes are similar or plain imitations of others. It is certainly true that standards fall with increases in quantity, and I think the same is true of universities and their students.
Among the popular programmes that every TV station has been keen to make are food programmes, which are mainly about eating out, not actual cooking. The low production costs are attractive to TV companies and they are able to get high viewing rates easily because viewers are able to enjoy watching them without any special knowledge. In a typical show, TV personalities visit interesting restaurants and make not overly critical comments about the food and atmosphere.
After people watch these programmes, these restaurants suddenly become very popular, of course. Also, there are programmes that specialise in foreign cuisine, and they visit famous restaurants in foreign countries. Typical dishes of these countries are featured, and the guests make comments, both positive and negative. In the case of programmes featuring British cuisine, their response has been mostly negative, while their responses to other cuisines such as French, Spanish, Italian, Vietnamese, Thailand etc. are mostly positive. Unfortunately, the same criticisms are voiced on websites here that post the comments of people’s experiences of eating out in various restaurants around the world. It’s difficult for most Japanese to enjoy typical British dishes such as fish & chips, steak & kidney pie, Yorkshire pudding etc. The taste is often not bad but we are often put off by the strong smells. I think the Japanese have rather delicate palettes!
Some Japanese chefs in the U.K. enjoy cooking English dishes. They prepare them carefully trying to tone down the strong smells and producing a lighter texture. Then they serve them to their English friends, who often praise their efforts, although they find the results quite different to the traditional versions.
Our instinctive impressions of smell and texture are often obstacles to enjoying foreign cuisine. People’s feelings about this are very personal, and so it might be useful to introduce a more scientific approach to the assessment of smells, for example.
There are many dishes/foods from around the world that have a very distinctive character. The most curious foods/dishes in this genre are as follows;
1. Surstromming from Sweden: tinned herring at 8070 Au.
2. Hongeohoe from South Korea; pickled ray at 6320 Au.
3. Epquire cheese from New Zealand: tinned cheese at 1870 Au.
4. Kiviak from Alaska in U.S., Canada and Greenland in Denmark: pickled seabird and seal at 1370 Au.
5. Kusaya from Japan: the dried fish (horse mackerel, flying fish etc. ) at 1267 Au.
(from Takeo Koizumi: ”Fermentation has almighty power「発酵はちからなり」.” NHK Human Lecture (2002))
The unit of Au is used to measure smell in a machine developed by Mr. K. Ebara, Prof. T. Koizumi and Mr. Y. Wakabayashi. Natto’s value of 452Au is low compared to the above examples, though there are some strange examples at similar values. Chotofu is a bean curd dish from China that is challenging for non-Chinese to eat. It has an Au level of 400, the same as the level recorded for athlete’s dirty socks! I can imagine how challenging it is for non-Japanese to eat natto. Unfortunately I haven’t yet had the chance to eat all of the 5 dishes mentioned above. One of my friends gave me Surstromming as a souvenir many years ago. I opened the tin while holding my nose, and immediately everyone started to run away shouting, “What a stink!” Then my wife was brave enough to try to eat it, and made what must be a typical comment – ” It’s actually delicious if you hold your nose while eating it.” She also made other comments about the taste, but all I remember is the terrible smell!
I ate the 2nd one on the list, Hongeohe, while living in South Korea. It was served as one of several side dishes at a slightly expensive Korean restaurant. One of my Korean friends ordered it especially for me. The other Koreans at our table looked very happy and told me that it was one of their most expensive dishes. It was served as a dish of raw, white sliced fish, like sashimi. There was a strong smell of ammonia when I picked it up and when I brought it to my mouth, it actually brought tears to my eyes. Once I got over the smell, I gradually started to get the feeling that the taste was not bad, although one slice was enough for me.
I am afraid that I haven’t had an opportunity to eat any of the others, though I did have an experience of trying to get away from a bad smell I came across in a market in Taipei, Taiwan. It turned out to be Chitofu.
All these are fermented dishes involving the formation of compounds from the amino group during the fermenting processes, and this causes the distinctive smells. Natto’s smell is nowhere near as strong as any of the 5 foods on the list, but it is still strong enough to put off most Europeans and Americans. People generally expect foods that are challenging to the olfactory system to be found mostly in Asian countries, but there are some pretty challenging ones in Europe, too – steak & kidney pie in England and Epoisses de Bourgogne cheese in France to name but two. Unfortunately I can’t find any information for the values of smell for either of these dishes.
Teras Grescoe, the author of “The Devils’ Picnic”, described in his book how hard it was to get good and authentic Epoisses de Bourgogne, as well as his speculation about why it is prohibited to import the cheese to the U.S.
I searched food related websites for comments about the cheese from people who had tried it. Most people who tried it said that once they got over the smell, they found it creamy in the mouth with a delicious fruity taste.
Is it well-known that Napoleon Bonaparte loved Epoisses, though nowadays taking them on public transport is prohibited in the whole of France! For an outsider, it’s interesting to hear the taste described as “the scent of God’s feet” in France, but as “the odour of pig’s feet” in the UK.
Steak and kidney pie is familiar to and loved by the British, but I was not courageous enough to try it, probably like most Japanese people.
2. TABLE MANNERS
Traditional eating customs are different in every country, and sometimes what is considered right in one country is regarded as bad etiquette in another. For example, picking up bowls or dishes while eating is often considered rude in the West and Korea, while it is traditionally acceptable in Japan. In Western style formal course meals, each dish is served separately, and each one comes after the diners have finished eating the previous one. In Japan, several dishes are served at once and diners eat each of them alternately, similar to the way people eat Tapas dishes in Spain. When it comes to communal eating, maybe there is a similarity between Japanese meals served like this and Latin European/Mediterranean (including Turkey and the Balkans) Tapas/Meze meals.
There are 2 exceptions – the “Kaiseki” style of formal banquet meals, and the “Shojin” style of Buddhist religious meals. There are other differences in eating customs for example, slurping when eating various noodles and drinking green tea. There are several elements that combine to make a harmonious taste in any dish in any cuisine: 1. Over-all taste. 2. Correct temperature. 3. Appealing appearance. 4. The feel of the food when it touches your mouth.
The smell of the soup is much stronger when a noodle soup such as ramen is served hot, but hot soup is hard to drink without slurping it. The mixture of air and soup that is caused by slurping is thought to be less hot to eat due to the insulation layer that is formed between the soup and skin of mouth, and as it evaporates it enhances the smell. This is also the case with green tea. Japanese cuisine has become much more popular around the world recently, and was also chosen last year to be included in UNESCO’s World Culinary Heritage. It relies on soybean based ingredients, dried seaweed, dried kelp, and dried bonito to produce delicate mixtures of salty, sugary, spicy tastes, and one more – “Umami”, which adds subtle character.
I heard that some chef at a prestigious Michelin–listed restaurant in Paris came to Japan to learn the secret of the Umami character in ramen noodle soup. Umami consists of a lovely smell and a delicate taste. It’s hard to explain in words, but you feel it when you start to slurp, rather like when you sip wine to try its taste before drinking.
3. THE FIRST CONDITION OFUNDERSTANDING ANDFEELING A FOREIGN COUNTY IS TO AMELL IT. (RUDYARD KIPLING)
As I mentioned before, my mother used to smell all food to see whether it was fresh or not. I seem to have inherited her habit because I am also quite sensitive to smells. Smelling food at mealtimes is considered to be rude in Japanese culture. That is why I have never done it openly, but always do so if I’m alone and nobody is watching.
I have always tried to avoid food poisoning, especially with lunch in the summer, by doing like this. The smells of a house often help me to get an idea of what the family is like, and I’m always curious about smells when I visit somebody’s house.
Most of my memories seem to be related to good and bad smells.
In the summer of 1983, on my first trip abroad, I visited Toronto in Canada to attend an international conference on powder metallurgy, and then went on to visit many companies in the U.S. My life was hectic for a few months before this trip, and I was only able to sleep for 3 or 4 hours a night. I caught a bad cold one week after arriving in the U.S. and because of this I became very sensitive to smells in foreign countries.
While walking in streets, visiting offices, walking through the entrances of hotels, staying in the rooms of hotels etc., there were different smells everywhere, though these smells shared a common character. I feel ashamed to admit this now, but I sniffed at the bed just like a dog does, and tried to identify the characters of the smell.
It seemed to be a combination of the smell of meat and milk. During my 2 weeks travelling in the U.S., I gradually became more and more sensitive to it, understanding it to be the characteristic smell there, and finally I couldn’t stand it when I left the U.S.
After that, I visited the US several times a year, and always noticed the smell. However, my sensitivity to it gradually decreased, to the point where I almost didn’t notice it if I was there for less than a week. At that time, we did not have the internet, and one fortunate aspect of this was that we could keep communication with our bosses to a minimum while we were abroad on business. Experiencing the smells of the US somehow gave me a sense of freedom.
The third country I visited was the UK. On the flight, I was quite excited to see what the smells would be like there. I thought the smells would be similar to the US but I was completely wrong. There was a fishy smell in London. I also visited other European countries. In France, I could not identify a characteristic smell for several reasons – it was masked by tobacco in Paris, my sense of smell was overridden by the beautiful scenery in Bordeaux, and I was just too busy in other cities. Rather than France, I felt Germany had a smell similar to the US, maybe due to the similar meat diet there.
As soon as I landed at Taipei airport in Taiwan, I wasn’t surprised to find there was a strong smell of Chinese herbal medicine. That made me wonder what kind of smell my own country had, so I primed my nose and paid special attention on the train form Narita airport to the center of Tokyo. Unfortunately, being completely used to the smell, I could not perceive its essential character. I tried to increase my sensitivity level to maximum but as the train ran along the seashore, I could only register a bad sea smell similar to that of Hong Kong.
As Mr. Kipling said, looking at countries through their smells is not only a good way to better understand their cuisine, it can also teach us many other things about that country.
Natural fragrances can be refined and reproduced artificially to make perfume, incense and other products. The oldest article on incense in Japan appears in ancient documents. A fisherman from Awaji island near Osaka found an unfamiliar piece of driftwood on the shore. After burning it and finding that it had a good scent, he presented it to the emperor in April 595(AD/CE). Just after that year (around 600AD/CE), Japan started to send diplomatic missions to China and imported Buddhism, with incense being used as a tool of worship. Accordingly, now incense is mainly used in religious rites, and it is a usual part of Buddhist services. The priest and attendants put the fragrant tree powder into a censer located in front of the altar, or burn it in sticks that are placed in the censer while praying. (In the indigenous belief of Shinto, incense is not used.) It is a strong smell and I think that it was used to mask the odor of dead bodies, which can sometimes take a long time to prepare for funerals. The smell of incense is not as strong as it used to be, probably because nowadays it’s easy to get dry ice to prevent the odor.
The use of incense in areas of life outside religious rites appears at around the 8th century at the latest, though there is no detailed information. As it was very rare and expensive and had to be imported from China and Southeastern Asian countries at that time, its use was limited to the emperor‘s family and the aristocracy. Then, the Samurai class gained political power in the 11th century, and by the 15th and 16th centuries, its use had spread to a very limited rich section of the ruling class.
There were mainly two ways of using incense:
Firstly masking body odor and bad smells in rooms, and secondly as a game which involved smelling different kinds of incense. In both cases, the fragrance is produced by putting fragrant tree granules on a mica plate and placing it over burning charcoal. Perfume (liquid or paste fragrance) did not appear in Japan until it was introduced from the West in the 19th century.
At the time that the nobility started to use incense, the average air temperature was not as high as it is now in Japan, but the high humidity must have caused people to sweat more and have stronger body odors than European people. Even members of the nobility did not take a bath, so they used incense to reduce the odour. Just like with perfumes today, different characters and properties were attributed to each incense, and they were often an integral part of love stories. (“The Tale of Genji” – the oldest and best Japanese love story was written in the early 11th century.)
The second use of incense was in the guessing game played among the nobility, called ‘incense matching’ (“Ko-awase” in Japanese), and might also have started at a similar time to its more practical use described above.
Throughout the game’s history in Japan, it has been enjoyed by only a very limited number of rich people as a kind of an elite parlor game. Even now, while almost all Japanese have never heard of it, ‘Incense guessing’ (“Kumikou” in Japanese) is still played. Nowadays, of course, as well as having many native Japanese games, there are also many that have been introduced from the West, and so the incense game has become even less familiar.
Though I cannot explain it exactly, because I’ve only attended a game once, I will try to describe it. The host (or referee) prepares several kinds of incense, maybe about five, and selects one of them to be the thematic link of the game. It might be a particular flower if the game is held in spring, for example. The visitors (players) each smell the selected incense. Then they smell the other incenses one after another and try to guess which is the same as the first. The game is very simple, but there are two reasons why it is quite difficult for most people to give suitable answers. The first one is physical. Our sense of smell is not as acute as our other senses, though there are of course a small number of people who are very sensitive to smell, such as perfumers, cooks, and other workers involved in food making businesses. The second reason is that while playing the game, you are supposed to make conversation based on historical events described in history books, or scenes from famous stories, which are related to the selected incense. This is the main theme of the game. (To put it in a way that might be easier for British or Western people to understand, you would have to explain your ideas about specific scenes from one of Shakespeare’s plays, and relate them to the scent.) For most people, it’s the lack of learning rather than the physical function of the nose that is the bigger hurdle to taking part in the game.
Besides this game, there is another way to enjoy incense by just smelling it. We actually call it ‘listening to the incense’, not smelling. People get together and enjoy talking about different incenses, their history and other related things.
Incenses are derived from the woodchips of trees of specific species growing naturally in Southeastern Asia. They are very expensive and are only used very sparingly, and there is even one that has been preserved for more than 1200 years.
Having this long tradition of incense in Japan, one might conclude that the Japanese are particularly sensitive to odours. However, I question that after my experience living in Korea more than ten years ago. Koreans usually take a shower every morning and I never noticed that people smelt of anything in particular when I was living there. On the other hand, when sometimes I used to go back to Japan on business trips, I could not stand the odor of people in tube and bus. And when I returned to Korea, I found the smell of garlic everywhere overwhelming. It’s not fair to think of the smell of garlic as a bad odor, because it’s not considered so by Koreans and indeed, it didn’t bother me when I was living there.
After my wife became sick and was hospitalized in Korea, she complained about the doctors and nurses always reeking of garlic and being served meals containing garlic from morning to night. Even though she actually liked garlic more than me, the traditional Japanese dislike of strong garlic smells appeared when she was sick. Liking and disliking smells may be a very subtle and delicate thing, and may change depending on the situation.
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Chapter６ SMELL （1954）
~~~~ FISH ~~~~~
Japan consists of 4 main islands and more than 6800 remote islands. The biggest one, called “Honshu”, is thin and long and has high mountains in the middle from the north to the southwest. It looks a bit like New Zealand’s south island. The village where the boy lived was located near some of these mountains in northern Japan. It consisted of only 50-60 houses scattered on the top and the bottom of the mountains, and along the tributary of the Abukuma river that runs there. The population of the village was very small, and there was only one general shop. It sold basic items for daily life as well as dried food products, but no fresh meat or fish. The demand for meat was very small in the whole of Japan in the 1950s, and very rare in rural areas, and that meant it was quite usual not being able to buy meat in a shop like this. The village was about 20 miles from the nearest main port, and the rural road system was not good at that time. Accordingly, the shop only sold salted, pickled and dried fish, as the main intake of protein for the Japanese was traditionally fish. People in the village bought various kinds of fresh fish from a fishmonger ( Mr.F ) , who came irregularly by cart from the nearby town. Mr.F usually first visited rich families to sell the expensive kinds of fish and then sold the rest in the open space near the primary school at the village centre.
It was a special day that day. It seemed that there was a celebration party at someone’s house, and Mr. F. came with an apprentice to prepare more dishes than usual. He parked his cart at the corner of the family’s garden and started to set up the table, chopping board etc. Then he took the knives from the wrapping cloths and put them on the table. “Right, let’s start working – Hey, boy, get some water from the well.”, he commanded the apprentice.
In Japan, people engaged in the work of making something, like carpenters, plasterers, smiths, bakers, confectioners etc., as well as chefs and fishmongers, are categorized as craftsmen. They generally tend not to be talkative as they must concentrate on their work. Fishmongers are an exception because they try to talk cheerfully to show the freshness of the fish to the customers. Japan has many rainy days, and its many forests help it to retain the water, hence there are many wells with fresh and delicious water in most areas. It was possible to drink very fresh water in this village as well, and most homes had wells in their gardens. The richer families were equipped with a manual pump to draw the water, while not so rich ones like the family mentioned here had only a wooden bucket with a long bamboo rod attached to it’s side.
Mr.F started the main work while almost all the children from the village gathered around him, and they fought each other to secure the best place to see him. With a yell of “Here goes!”, he took out the fish from the wooden box. It was a big turbot about 1.5 feet long, and its huge size was very different from the small fish that the boy usually caught in the rivers and ponds. He scraped off the scales from it, cut it straight down the abdomen and took out the internal organs, then shouted to the boy, “Pour water on it.” He cleansed it with clean water and wiped the water off the fish with a cloth, and then cut it into slices of about 2 inches thickness. This was for simmered fish in broth. The fresh smell of the fish spread around them, and it was completely different to the usual smell of the dried fish at the village store. He placed the slices of the fish into the pan, which would be cooked by him after the cutting work was finished. Shouting, “Finished.” the boy thoroughly washed the chopping board and kitchen knife.
He said, “Next one.” and took an ocean perch from the wooden box. This fish is also good for “simmered fish in broth”, and suitable for celebrations because of its red-coloured skin. In Japan, it is the custom to use different colours for clothes, bags and everything else, to suit the occasion. For example, red and white for happy occasions and black and white for unhappy ones, though black suits are worn by men in both cases.
He prepared it and then threw slices of it into the next pot while shouting loudly, “That’s it.” He clapped his hands while the apprentice started washing the cooking utensils saying, “Yes Sir”, and their interaction was quite artistic in its own way.
One after another, he took out various kinds of fish, prepared and cooked them, and the apprentice did his work. The last one was a sea bream, which is the supreme fish for celebrations. Of course, it has red skin and is fantastic for sushi. (Unfortunately, the boy had never had the chance to enjoy it until that time, as his family was poor.) Mr.F removed the scales and inner organs from the fish, washed it, and then cut it into three parts – two pieces of flesh on either side of the bone, which was connected to the head and tail. At that moment, the fresh smell filled the air. Then, with a very sharp knife shaped like a Japanese sword (1.5 feet long and 1 inch wide), he quickly removed the skin and cut it into slices. The sharpness of the knife is very important for preparing this food, because if you cut it with a blunt knife it crushes the cells of the flesh, spoiling the taste. Using a sharp knife avoids crushing the cells and prevents the leakage of liquid from them, and it also helps to bring out the fantastic taste of sashimi(raw fish). Besides, you can feel the freshness of the smooth surface of the flesh with your tongue.
His skills of handling and sharpening the knife were exquisite. He placed the pieces of Sashimi along the bone connected to the head and the tail to make it look as if it were still alive, and then garnished it with grated radish etc. He made the sashimi at the end to minimise the risk of food poisoning by serving it as fresh as possible.
Now here is a question from the perspective of the children who fought each other to get the best positions around Mr.F. Do you think that they came to watch the fishmonger’s exquisite work? No, Mr.F brought the fish in the boxes with ice cubes to keep them fresh. The ice cubes became unnecessary as the preparation progressed. He washed them and gave some of them to the boys, depending on how he felt, and the boys were waiting for those moments. During the preparation, he picked up some of the cubes from the box and gave them to the boys, though not all of the boys received one – hence fighting between them occurred. Those who got some enjoyed a great time together, while the ones who didn’t just glared at the lucky ones. Even eating flavourless ice cubes was a treat for them as their village was far from the seaside and big cities, and their opportunities to eat real ice cream were very rare indeed.
As the work progressed and the amount of the fish and ice cubes became less and less, the boy started to become anxious that he might not be able to get an ice cube. Mr.F eventually favoured him but the boy didn’t want it, or rather his mother wouldn’t allow him to eat it. There had been an older brother before him, but he had died before the boy was born. He was not sure but he thought his older brother and sister had contracted dysentery after eating some kind of food that hadn’t been prepared hygienically. The sister survived but the brother died. Since then, their mother had been very cautious about food poisoning. She sniffed all the food at every meal and washed everything scrupulously. As fish goes off quickly, she worried that the fishmonger’s ice might have lots of germs, so she was strict about not allowing him to have any.
Mr. F was a very friendly man, and looking at the boy asked, “Don’t you want an ice cube?” Of course he wanted to eat it but it would have led to him being told off by his mother. On the other hand, he appreciated Mr.F’s kindness and felt he must respond. Pretending to eat the ice cube didn’t occur to one so young. To eat or not to eat: That was the question! He was in a real quandary. Without realizing, he put his hand out to accept, but then snatched it back again. He watched other children enjoying the ice cubes. Finally, there were none left. There was nothing he could do but swallow the bitter spit that was rising in his mouth and cry silently. It is strange that he still remembers the fresh aroma of the fish vividly even today.
~~~~ FERMNETED SOYBEANS, OTHERWISE KNOWN AS “NATTO”~~~~
Natto is a fantastic food, though it can be a bit tricky to eat and takes time to get used to. As soybeans contain protein of a higher quality than meat, the Japanese government and media have been strongly encouraging the nation’s people to eat them. The main dishes made from soybeans are tofu/bean curd and natto/fermented soybeans. I think that tofu has already been widely accepted by people in the West. On the other hand, natto hasn’t. This is due to the strong smell and unique tactile quality that it has after the fermentation process. Even in Japan, it is not eaten much in the Kansai region, including Osaka and Kyoto, maybe for these reasons. For the people in the West, these obstacles seem to be more difficult to get over, hence it isn’t familiar to people in the U.K. either.
Recently natto was found to have many medicinal benefits, for example dissolving blood clots, and this greatly enhanced its sales. Well, what is natto exactly? The production process is simple: Washed soybeans are boiled, and then wrapped in rice straw. The beans are fermented by bacteria that are found naturally on the straw. Just by keeping it in a warm place (around 40 degrees C) for a couple of days, it becomes natto – that’s all there is to it. But the fermentation process is not always successful when using straw, and so the use of straw is not suitable for mass production. Hence the modern process, using the “Bacillus subtilis var. natto” instead of the straw, was developed in the 1920s. However, there are many people who still prefer the old method, which brings out a taste and aroma that is subtly different to natto produced by the modern process.
The best way to eat natto: At first it just looks like ordinary dry beans, as shown below. Stir the beans with chopsticks until sticky fibres start to appear, as shown in second photo. The longer you stir, the better. (According to one well-known gourmet, Mr. Rosanjin Kitaoji, about 200 times is best, showing the appearance in third photo.) After that, mix with soy sauce, mustard and salad onion etc., and then eat with freshly boiled rice, udon or soba noodles. Recently, some people even eat it with spaghetti. You need an adventurous spirit to eat natto, rather like you do with Marmite if you haven’t encountered it before!
Let’s go back to the previous topic. Various kinds of itinerant vendors, including fishmongers as mentioned before, as well as dancers and other entertainers came to the village irregularly. The boy’s mother did not trust the hygiene standard of the foods sold by these salesmen, and never allowed him to have anything from them.
One evening, after his mother got home unusually early, someone visited them unexpectedly just as they were about to start dinner. Holding their chopsticks and with their mouths agape, they stared at this man at the front door, which was at the end of the sitting room. His mother looked at him suspiciously and said, “Who on earth are you at this time of night?” He was a noticeably poor, old man, wearing worn out clothes, though not dirty. He hesitatingly came forward a few inches and took some food out from the furoshiki wrapping cloth on his shoulder and said, “I’ve got some natto and fishcakes and I was wandering if you would like to buy some.” “Sorry, we are not int….”, she managed to say before the boy shouted, “Mum, please buy some.”
After a few moments of silence she weakened and said reluctantly, “Ok, I’ll take 3 packs of natto.” As the boy enjoyed spending time by himself, he had acquired the habit of talking to himself, so he was surprised at how readily he had been able to shout out the words. He felt some kind of kinship with the man – they both lived in the same poverty, and they were both kind of misfits.
Not realizing that his mother considered the natto safer than fish, he couldn’t understand why she had allowed them to buy something from the man on this occasion, but as a rule refused to buy anything from itinerant food sellers. The next morning they ate the natto, produced in the old way and wrapped in straw. In general, people’s tastes are strongly influenced by family customs, the way they were brought up etc., and it is no wonder that he liked natto so much as he grew up in a region where it is very popular
After taking the natto from the straw and stirring it, it produced a strong smell. However, this is exactly why some people hate it. The amazing taste and consistency of its beans mixed well with boiled rice made a fantastic combination. He usually didn’t eat much, but this simple meal stimulated his appetite so much that he ate more than 3 bowls of rice.
Having liked it so much, he asked his mother to buy natto from the man on many occasions, but she never bought it for him again. She said it was because the old man looked too scruffy, but her real reason was probably because she was originally from an area near Osaka, where most people don’t like natto. This natto became an unforgettable taste for him – one that he wouldn’t enjoy again until he was about 40. He tried to make it by himself, but never came close to making anything as delicious.
Recently, one company developed a less smelly kind of natto, and it became very popular. Then another company made a similar product and started to promote and sell it in Paris, the culinary capital of Europe. They thought selling it aboard was a great idea for increasing its sales in the domestic market, and this new natto has proved to be a hit in Japan as well.
They probably also thought Western people might have a problem with its sticky texture, and developed one that was less sticky. They chose Paris as the first city abroad to sell it as the French are known for being “Foodies”. It’s difficult to imagine natto without its distinctive smell and sticky texture, but it will be interesting to see what the French make of it.