Natto, glorious natto! Fermented soybeans that smell much worse than they taste; it’s the durian of Japan and one of the country’s most polarising foods. Ok, maybe it isn’t to Japanese, but to non-Japanese it most certainly is. For those that love it, it’s a (breakfast) staple. For those that don’t, it can be the one stumbling block in what is otherwise a much-lauded culinary landscape. The one chink in its otherwise impenetrable armour, you could say.
I’m very much in the ‘love it’ camp; I think it tastes like truffles. In Singapore it can be quite expensive (apparently something to do with a lack of demand, economics, whatever, pah!), but the cheapest place that we have found is J-Mart. Funnily enough, I was stocking up at the J-Mart in 112 Katong just last weekend, and managed to cause quite a furore amongst the two shop assistants by buying four multi-packs of natto (that’s twelve individual packs). They couldn’t stop clucking to each other (in front of me), saying “Wahh, ang mo very clever ah… Wahh, ang mo know how to eat natto ah… Wahh… You know how to eat or not ah? Wahhhh”. Mostly annoying, quite rude, and a little bit endearing at the same time. Quintessentially Singaporean, I would say!
Back in Nippon, there is one place in Tokyo that every natto aficionado should visit: Sendai Ya. Why? Because for lunch they offer not just natto in a variety of dazzling flavour combinations, but the offerings don’t stop coming until you tell them to. That’s right: all-you-can-eat natto! It’s incredible! And if that wasn’t enough to whet the old appetite, then they also provide natto doughnuts and ice cream (inside), and quite remarkably have a natto vending machine (outside).
For the natto neophytes out there, natto is a tricky food to eat. Each soy bean is attached to the next with a sticky, stringy and slimy gunk that clings to everything. The best policy is usually to shove some in your mouth and then spin your chopsticks round in small, quick circles to sever the tendons, so to speak. It’s hard enough to eat when you’re at home; just imagine what it’s like when you’re eating it in public (for the first time). Especially when you’re in a country where elegance, grace and decorum is prized above all else! I would go so far as to suggest that in Japan, the public consumption of natto is the ultimate challenge; a true test of dining etiquette.
It makes sense, then, that the atmosphere inside Sendai Ya is quiet, hushed, focused. There are few sounds but the whirring of chopsticks and the occasional clang from the kitchen. Compared to everyone else under that roof, I was a slow eater. My fumbling self-consciousness put me firmly in the minority, for there was little stopping the rest of the Tokyo hungry from hoovering down packet after packet (after packet) of the good stuff. Practice, practice, practice. That’s all there is to it.
Along with most people that go to Sendai Ya, I went for the absurdly well-priced ¥790 set lunch. It comes with unlimited natto (served two packets at a time), a konjac and hijiki salad, some pickles, miso soup and rice. It may be functional, but it works an absolute treat. The natto choices were explained to me by the chef himself (the only person there that could speak a little English) and were: big, small, broken, sesame, edamame, hijiki and millet. I went for big, sesame and edamame. (Note: only three packets is a little wimpy, I know. But I had already eaten another packet earlier for breakfast. Can you imagine? Best day of my life).
In the interests of complete, unadulterated honesty and disclosure, I had trouble in deciphering the differences in flavour between my three choices. All were equally delicious, and all, funnily enough, tasted lighter, less natto-like (i.e. pungent) than the stuff i’m used to in Singapore. Must be something to do with the freshness.
The large chunks of chopped onion that came with the “big” and edamame packs were hugely refreshing, and the container for the sesame natto deserves a special mention for being so alluring in its stripiness. But my favourite? The “big” option, mainly because each individual bean could be tasted, relished and enjoyed. Super-size the natto, super-size the pleasure. It makes perfect sense!
All in all, Sendai Ya is a very, very special place. It’s a mecca for natto-enthusiasts worldwide, and should be recognised as such. Clearly it’s not for everyone, but then again, the best places very rarely are. Funny, that.