International Film Festival that just opened there, and so I keep hearing about what's playing. Many of the films are being shown at the Kabuki theater in Japantown, and I am reminded of my pre-movie tradition of picking up food to smuggle into the theater from that carnival of delightful Japanese snacks known as Nijiya Market. [All their stores have donation boxes set up for tsunami disaster relief and I pass along the link to donate to the Red Cross here].
Natto, like stinky tofu, is a fermented soy, um, thing that causes extreme excitement in people, most often in the form of "Oh yeah! Nattoooo! They have natto?! Yum, I love natto," or "Gross, get it out of my face. I'm gonna puke. That stuff is so nasty. Boogerz." I must admit that while I am dedicated to the cause of keeping one's palate open to strange foods and learning to like strong and idiosyncratic tastes, I cannot eat natto with much gusto.
But I decided to take one for the proverbial Weird Vegetables team a few months ago and try this natto handroll from Nijiya Market. They have a whole variety of handrolls that are neatly packaged with precise 1-2-3 instructions for assembling the separate parts of your handroll as you pull open the plastic at the indicated arrows. I particularly like the ume (fermented plum) rolls--this dollop of wrinkled fuchsia is my Japanese pickle of choice.
After engaging my expert origami skills to follow the assembly instructions properly, I deconstructed the roll so you can see the natto better. Eagle-eyed readers will note the green leaf is identified in the ingredient list as ooba, more commonly known as shiso, a delicate herb whose texture is like mint but a few degrees finer and whose distinct and pleasing taste (to me, at least) I am finding hard to describe--almost bitter and more reminiscent of trees or shrubs than its cousin herbs (mint, basil, sage).
I thought maybe I would like natto better in a sushi roll with one of my favorite Japanese leaves, but it still made my eyes scrunch up and my mouth turn down. I don't mind the gooeyness--I'm very much friends with okra, which is equally viscous--but encountering the intense fermentation reminds me of taking too big a whiff of rubbing alcohol so that the scent punches up your nose. Still, you cannot call yourself an intrepid lover of all things vegetable without at least trying some tawny mouthfuls of this soy specialty. Here is an incredibly cute and adoring introduction to natto. And another write up on the zine-to-Internet culture clearing house Boing Boing. My other favorite market, Rainbow Grocery, also harbors a vat of natto in its bulk section, the sight of which has been known to inspire visitors from Tokyo to clap their hands together ever so gently and emit a low-yet-fervent murmur of delight.