Remember when you would step out to the スーパー (sūpā, supermarket) just to pick up some 卵 (tamago, eggs), 牛乳 (gyūnyū, milk) or 砂糖 (satō, sugar)? Well, these days you’re just as likely to pick up スーパーフード (sūpāfūdo, superfoods) from the スーパー as you are your daily necessities.
The shopping lists of health-conscious consumers are likely to include products such as ココナッツオイル (kokonattsu oiru, coconut oil), チアシード (chia shīdo, chia seeds) and アサイー (asaī, acai), but health-conscious Japanese are likely to stick with one staple that has done them well for centuries: 納豆 (nattō, fermented soybeans).
One of the country’s most notable 健康食品 (kenkō shokuhin, health food products), 納豆 is made from 大豆 (daizu, soybeans) fermented with 枯草菌 (kosōkin, bacillus subtilis), a bacteria widely recognized as a probiotic. It’s known to have its roots in the area of Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, a region famous for わら納豆 (wara nattō), which is 納豆 wrapped in rice husks.
納豆 has long been many Japanese people’s 一番好きなご飯のお供 (ichiban sukina gohan no o-tomo, favorite pairing with rice) and is often a part of their 朝食 (chōshoku, breakfast). A typical pack that is sold at the supermarket will likely come with two toppings: からし (karashi, mustard) and タレ (tare, a sweet dipping sauce). まず、からしを納豆にかけ、そのあとネバネバになるまでかき混ぜてください (Mazu, karashi o nattō ni kake, sono ato neba-neba ni naru made kakimazete kudasai, First, put the mustard on the nattō, and then mix thoroughly until it becomes sticky and slimy). That ネバネバ texture tends to make 納豆 unappealing to people who’ve never tried it before. ネバネバ is also used to describe foods like オクラ (okura, okra) and 長いも (nagaimo, Chinese yams).
True connoisseurs eat it alongside other types of food. 私は納豆にきざみのりをのせて食べるのが好き (Watashi wa nattō ni kizami nori o nosete taberu no ga suki, I like to eat my nattō with thinly chopped seaweed), while my cousin prefers to eat it with キムチ (kimuchi, kimchi). I’ve even heard that some people mix it into a Bolognese sauce and eat it with pasta.
Despite its popularity in Japan, however, 納豆 is bound to have a difficult time making it onto the Top 10 lists of any visiting foodies. Its ネバネバ consistency and 不快な匂い (fukaina nioi, unpleasant smell) can be a bit of a turn-off to many people who didn’t grow up with it. I still remember the first time I tasted it: “何これ！” (“Nani kore!” “What the heck is this!”), I shouted. “無理！臭い！” (“Muri! Kusai!,” “Impossible! It stinks!”)
I eventually grew to like it, though. Many consider 納豆 to have an 大人の味 (otona no aji, mature flavor), which makes it an acquired taste. Until adulthood, however, there are likely to be many arguments in Japanese homes as to whether kids can leave the table before their 納豆 is finished. My own father was pretty strict when it came to mealtime manners. He used to say, “よく噛んで食べなさい” (“Yoku kande tabenasai,” “Chew your food carefully”), and would also tell my brother and I, “作ってくれた農家の方に失礼のないように、ご飯は一粒残さず食べなさい” (“Tsukutte kureta nōka no kata ni shitsurei no nai yō ni, gohan wa hitotsubu nokosazu tabenasai,” “Make sure to eat every last grain of rice in your bowl to show respect to the farmers who cultivated them”). This is like the Japanese version of how Western parents guilt their children into eating all their food because there are starving kids in the world. The same logic gets Japanese kids to eat all their 納豆 as well.
Sometimes it’s easier to tell your kids, “納豆を残さず食べたら強くなれる” (“Nattō o nokosazu tabetara tsuyoku nareru,” “If you eat up all your nattō, you’ll become nice and strong”), because the one thing 納豆 has going for it is that it is good for your health. 納豆は便秘予防に効果的 (Nattō wa benpi yobō ni kōkateki, The effects of nattō are great for preventing constipation) and, as my family doctor tells me, it’s good for 美容 (biyō, skincare) and 免疫力アップ (men’eki-ryoku appu, strengthening your immune system).
So if チアシード and アサイー are too fancy for you, try to make peace with 臭くてネバネバしている納豆 (kusakute neba-neba shite-iru nattō, smelly, slimy nattō). Japanese people have some of the longest life spans in the world, so it can’t be all bad.