Natto for Everyone


Being maddeningly indecisive, I am always the person who insists on ordering last at restaurants, not doubling up on any dish, and sharing it all. But every once in a while, I need something all to myself, with no forks, chopsticks, or fingers wandering into my territory. That’s when I order the natto with okra (okura natto, $3.50) at Village Yokocho. When this is delivered to the table, I am more than free from mooching threats—my friends are often downright repulsed by the sight of it.

Natto—fermented soybeans—is a common Japanese snack, eaten most often with sushi rice or in a maki roll. The individual beans are intact and firm, but they acquire a snotty, sticky outer coating and a funky taste in the fermentation. At Village Yokocho, raw okra (which only increases the slime factor) is sliced into thin rounds, tossed with natto in a bowl, and garnished with a shiso leaf and a sprinkle of confetti-like shards of nori. There is a blob of Japanese mustard on the edge of the bowl, which I mix in with a dash of soy sauce. It’s also good with wasabi, and some people add it to instant ramen to thicken the broth.

Natto is often not on menus at Japanese restaurants in the West—not because it is fancy or rare, but because the proprietors assume that non-Japanese customers wouldn’t like it. This assumption is most often correct, but foodie logic also tells us that many Americans (especially New Yorkers) will order it simply for that reason—to prove that they’re “down.” These “chowhounds,” the types who ask waiters not to tell the chef they’re American or who turn their chopstick covers into elaborate origami creations, think of “natto” as a code word, unlocking a world of culinary secrets and impressing the staff at any sushi bar. Tips like these are useful to the adventurous eater, but ‘hounds should not forget to be sure they might like the stuff first.

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