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Fermented Cultural Anthropology

“Natto is one notable food in Japanese cuisine. The characteristics of natto are its “rotten” smell and its stickiness; some people dislike Natto because of these characteristics, and my father is not an exception.” Ayari Tanimoto explores the entanglement of food and identity by paying close attention to life of nattos.

Words by Ayari Tanimoto

Natto is one notable food in Japanese cuisine. The characteristics of natto are its “rotten” smell and its stickiness; some people dislike Natto because of these characteristics, and my father is not an exception. Personally, I love Natto, and I eat at least one package every day. Moreover, my “Japaneseness” feels stimulated when I eat it. Here, I would like to investigate how Natto and the Japanese identity are related to each other by using the knowledge I accumulated through the course Anthropology of Food. I will start by reviewing the history and recipe of Natto and will connect it to my findings. As for the definition of “Japanese,” it will be a complex and lengthy discussion if I go through it seriously, so here I will define it as “those who regard themselves as Japanese or have a Japanese passport.”

It is believed that the first Natto was produced during the mid-Muromachi period (1335-1573), although there are still some arguments. In the present day, annual production is approximately 0.23 million tons (Koizumi, 2012). Natto has various types of styles and flavors, and the “regular” ones we see at the supermarkets are called Itohiki-Natto (糸引き納豆). Itohiki-Natto first clearly appeared in the story of “Shoujingyorui-monogatari (精進魚類物語)” (1470). In the Edo period, Natto was called “Edo-Natto,” or “Wara-Natto,” and people enjoyed eating them. At that period, there were numerous articles mentioning the Natto, such as a cooking book “Okusake-ryorisho (大草家料理書)” (approximately 1600), a joke book “Seisuishou (醒睡笑)” (1623), and an encyclopedia compiled in Edo period “Wakan-sansai-zue (和漢三才図絵)” (1722) (Umeda, 1954). Behind the rise of Natto, there is a deep connection with Buddhism (Yokoyama, 2014). Buddhists dislike killing animals—Sashou (殺傷), or “killing”—so the Japanese cuisine gradually avoided using meat and replaced it with soybeans and other proteins. To maintain the consumption of such proteins during winter, people developed fermentation and created not only Natto but also Miso, soy sauce, and Tofu. To make Wara-Natto, people needed “tacit knowledge” ( Kan 勘, “intuition”) to get “synesthetic reason” ( Kotsu こつ, “tips”), fruitful experience, and practice (Umeda, 1954). After the 1920s, thanks to biological research, Jun Hanzawa succeeded in cultivating the Bacillus Natto, allowing the mass production of Natto (Yokoyama, 2014).

Natto is categorized into: straw-packaged  (Wara-Natto) and plastic-packaged (Pura-Natto). I have never eaten Wara-Natto, but according to the internet, Wara-Natto is stickier but less pungent than Pura-Natto. To see the reason behind these differences, I will briefly explain the recipe for making Wara-Natto and Pura-Natto. The first step is to  select the soybeans – good soybeans can make fabulous Natto, so selecting the soybeans is essential. There are three criterias for checking the quality of the beans. One of them is that the beans are delicious even after steaming, Natto made from this kind of beans is better. Another one is the skin of the beans: soybeans with thin skins are considered better. Finally when it comes to the size, beans around the medium size are ideal. After selecting the soybeans, the next step is to wash and soak them in water. By soaking, the tissue in the soybeans gets softened, making steaming easy and more stable. This step is influenced by the temperature, time, water temperature, hardness of the water, and the size of the soybeans, so producers have to consider those elements when they soak them. The washed beans are then ready to be steamed. After steaming, it is time to attach the Bacillus Natto to the soybeans. These processes above are done in making both Pura-Natto and Wara-Natto. Afterwards, in the case of Wara-Natto, clean up the straw first and wrap the soybeans. The theory is to use more straws and fewer soybeans. After that, put the Natto in a wooden box for warmth and fermentation. Surprisingly, you can use Kotatsu for this process. After 20 hours, the fermentation is completed. When the fermentation happens, the ideal temperature is 43 degrees Celcius and the wooden boxes can maintain the best humidity and ventilation. Finally, the Natto is left to cool down, after which it can be eaten. When it comes to Pura-Natto, instead of straws, a culture solution of Bacillus Natto is used. The culture solution is watered down and is injected into the soybeans. In comparison to Wara-Natto, the injected Bacillus Natto has less risk of ruining the natto.  Apart from the “package” in which they warm the beans up, the differences in processes make the natto’s taste and smell different despite their similarity. 

As we see, Pura-Natto is the result of industrialization. I will first examine the dimensions of the unfinished commodity and finished commodity to investigate industrialization. As I said, Wara-Natto relies on the Bacillus Natto attached to the straw to ferment. So, the result of fermentation depends on how this Bacillus Natto works. Furthermore, it also depends on how much straw is used, as the process before wrapping affects its taste and smell. Indeed, people will make decisions and prepare for the fermentation, impacting the results. However, the natural elements of the Bacillus Natto make the soybeans Wara-Natto. Hence, this Wara-natto lacks consistency and is unpredictable and unique. Paxson (2013) said that “The unfinished character of artisanal cheese as a commodity calls attention to the instability, and hence open promise, of its heterogeneous forms of value” (p,13). On the other hand, Pura-Natto is always under control in its quality. The process before wrapping is the same as Wara-Natto, but the trigger of fermentation is quite different. Wara-Natto uses Bacillus Natto within the straw; however, for the Pura-Natto, Bacillus Natto is added by human hand or by machines and does not use the natural Bacillus for fermentation. Hence, Pura-Natto (like the name “plastic natto” suggests) is a finished commodity compared to Wara-natto. 

Wara-Natto is mostly preferred by non-Natto lovers since it doesn’t have a strong smell. However, the scent of Pura-Natto is fascinating for enthusiastic Natto lovers, including me. In other words, the pungent smell of Pura-Natto makes it more “Natto-ish.” Through this theory, I believe that the industrialized Pura-Natto has different values from Wara-Natto. A friend of mine told me that “the scent of Natto reminds me of Japan. I know it is stinky for some people, but for me, this is certainly one scent that defines my homeland.”

Counihan (2013) succeeds in investigating the relationship between this person and the society by conducting interviews on their food-centered life histories, so I want to use this method to understand the connection between my friend and Natto regarding her homeland. This friend had spent 15 years outside of Japan. Her parents are both Japanese, and her mother tried to make Japanese cuisine by using unfamiliar ingredients and expensive Japanese seasonings and foods. Interestingly, this friend had a bad image of Japanese cuisine at first because Western thinking influenced her: Japanese cuisine eats raw fish while many Western cultures don’t. For her, eating raw fish used to be unbelievable, and this suspicion was connected to the awful image of Japanese cuisine. Regarding Natto, she had few opportunities to try them during her 15 years abroad because Natto was expensive, and she could not enjoy the taste and smell of it at the time. She temporarily returned to Japan when she was in Year 10 and spent one and a half years with her whole family at her grandmother’s house in Tokyo, Japan. Her mother loves Natto, so she experienced eating Natto as a daily meal. Her first encounter with Natto was when she was six years old. Her first impression was “ew, this is stinky and sticky!” or in Japanese 「ナニコレ、くっさ!ねばねば!」. So, her first impression of it was terrible, but her encounter in Tokyo was different. She looked back:

I realized that I ate the part of Natto without the sauce; I technically ate only the beans. I don’t think I tasted anything but the odor and slimy texture. So, my first impression of Natto was a nightmare. However, the experience of Natto in Tokyo was quite different. I ate Hikiwari-Natto (chopped-natto). I found it fun to mix everything together, and I didn’t have to chew that much, so it was not that bad. Then, I gradually overcame eating Natto! Now I like it!

She got used to eating Natto, as she gained experience eating Natto in Tokyo. She used to have a weak relationship with Japanese culture because she spent her childhood outside of Japan. Now that she has a relatively strong relationship, she said: “Natto, the so-called ‘disgusting, smelly food of Japan. is now something I can eat. So, I feel like I belong to this society more, and I have blended and “dyed” well into it. Natto was not the only reason behind building my identity as a Japanese, but I’m sure that being able to enjoy Natto is now a part of my Japanese identity.” 

Natto is a stinky food. I heard that some foreigners gave up eating it because of its strong odor. Then, why are some people able to eat Natto with pleasure? To answer, Bourdieu (1977) insisted on the term “habitus.” Lee (2000) introduces Bourdieu’s habitus in her article and says: “Habitus is best understood as bi-directional, both affected by external stimuli in the performance of bodily practice and informing the ideology and social values generating human behavior” (Lee, 2000). Applying “habitus” to my friend’s case, she received different stimuli from her family’s meal in Japan. Then, her tongue reacted to these stimuli and gradually accepted Natto in her eating practice. Habitus includes three systems: physical disposition, sociocultural context, and aesthetic disposition. In other words, the ability to eat, the environmental pressure from the surroundings, and preferences, respectively. She gained the ability to eat it because her family often served Natto as a meal, and she did not reject eating it. As you can see, three systems coherently work well in her case. This accomplishment inside her contributes to creating her new habitus with Natto. This new appearance in her taste is the opposite flow of what Lee (2000) introduced as “dys-appearing tongue.” The term “dys-appearance” is created by Drew Leder (1990) and “[describes] the body as “being away” from its ordinary or desired state” (Lee, 2000). My friend’s case resulted in the opposite direction, as her body had the taste“be implemented” to its “ordinary” or desired state as a Japanese. 

Natto is a unique smelly food produced in Japan. Some foreigners and even some Japanese still struggle to eat them. Thanks to industrialization, Natto (Pura-Natto) is now mass-produced, and people can enjoy the food with a more pungent scent than the artisanal Wara-Natto. I investigated how this distinctive food affects the identity of Japanese people. According to my friend, her identity, which developed strongly during her stay in Tokyo, was greatly affected by eating Natto, as it contributed to the confirmation and strengthening of her attachment to Japan. Her experience in Japan, including the challenge of eating Natto, caused her identity to change. As a result, the idiosyncratic national dish is able to influence a person to attain a local identity. For the next challenge, I would like to explore the opinions of those who dislike Natto and find their commonalities and differences with fellow countrymen Natto lovers.

 Reference

Koizumi. T. (2012). Science of Fermented Foods [発酵食品学]. Kodansha [講談社].

Umeda. S. (1954). How to make Natto [納豆のつくりかた]. Fuminsha [富民社].

Yokoyama. S. (2014). The Origin of Natto [納豆の起源]. NHK Books.

Selected Straw Natto Recommendations! Why is it in straw? Is there any difference in taste? [わら納豆のおすすめを厳選!わらに入っている理由は?味に違いはある?]. (n.d.). Retrieved February 12, 2021. from https://gourmet-note.jp/posts/12862

This paper is originally written as an assignment for the course Anthropology of Food (2021)

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