I went to Kyoto and Osaka over the weekend, and came back basically broke. This is probably because I have a bad habit of spending unreasonable amounts of money on food while I’m on vacation. In any event, this means that I now have 7000 yen to my name, which has to see me through one week and a weekend of alcohol-saturated farewell partying. Challenge accepted!
Let me introduce you to the food that will get me through the week:
Natto (fermented soybeans) is a traditional Japanese food, usually eaten over rice. With a smell like Muenster cheese and a consistency somewhat akin to troll snot, it’s no wonder that many of us foreign types (and many Japanese people, for that matter) find the stuff unpalatable. However, if you, too, are trying to survive in Japan on a shoestring budget, natto is your best friend. If you don’t like natto, you might consider trying again. It’s my theory that those of us who didn’t grow up with it have to exert a certain amount of effort to develop a taste for it. Unfortunately, many don’t get past the first try.
I owe my love of natto to my first host family. I had been in Japan for no more than a week when they served it to me (notably, without the half-amused disclaimer that I now realize is common practice when serving natto to foriegners) and I found it disgusting – but it certainly wasn’t the only bizzare and disgusting food I had encountered that week, so I ate it with minimal trouble. The second time, it wasn’t so bad. By the third I found myself looking forward to the tangy flavor and the way the filiments of slime attached to my chopsticks trailed out to one side in the breeze from the electric fan.
I’m so grateful to my host family for making me like natto. Not only is it delicious, but it’s a good source of protein, it’s probiotic, and best of all, it’s crazy cheap (a pack of three Styrofoam containers is usually somewhere between 50 and 120 yen). It makes an otherwise depressing meal of miso soup and rice into something you can feel good about eating.
Natto has a particular flavor of its own, but it can be greatly improved upon by adding other things. Each foam pack comes with sauce and spicy Japanese mustard, but if you’ve got the extra money, you can add almost anything: chopped leeks, kimchi, avocado or egg are all delicious additions. It’s also good in rolled sushi, on salads, toasted on a piece of bread with cheese, or as a filling for spring rolls.
For the folks at home who are wondering where they can get their hands on this amazingly versatile ingredient, the truth is, your options are somewhat limited. Japanese grocery stores often stock it (for a good three times the price listed above), but the freezing process necessary to trasport it often gives the beans an unfortunate grainy texture. There are also a couple of recipes (see Shizuoka Gourmet) out there for those adventurous enough to make their own natto – but they require you to start with a pack of storebought stuff for the culture. I know I’ll miss natto when I move back to the states – whenever that is – so advice in this field would be much appreciated.
Eat your natto, folks! And good luck with those finances.