During this “stay at home” period I have been watching YouTube more than usual. One show, “Outdoor Chef” with Taku, has really caught my eye. It’s a “catch and cook” themed show where Taku goes fishing, then cooks what he catches. Usually he makes it into sushi because he’s a sushi chef by trade.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has really restricted Taku’s traveling and fishing. But while searching for new food related topics, he did a show on “Natto.”

Some JAs have grown up with natto. Usually, eating it is determined by family tradition and whoever cooks the meals. We didn’t eat it much in the Furutani household but Lisa, my wife, loves it. Consequently our sons grew up eating natto burritos, nori with rice and natto in the middle futo-maki style.

Now, anyone who knows natto knows you have to doctor it up a bit. Usually each dose comes with a little packet of yellow mustard. You put said mustard into the mass of stringy fermented soybeans, mix with a little shoyu and there you have it. Sometimes if using hot rice as the base you can also mix the doctored natto with a raw egg and pour it over the rice donburi style.

Speaking of natto, in the mid-1980s I worked at the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA. On occasion good-natured kidding and one-upsmanship would break out relative to whose culture was this or that, better or worse. One day the issue of who had the “funkiest” food, condiment or otherwise took center stage.

Were we talking about smell, taste, consistency or all of the above? The basic ground rules were agreed upon. The contest winner would be determined by an overall assessment of general funkiness.

Among Asian cuisines there are many specialty items. This is really true when it comes to funky, smelly and yucky food stuff, condiments or flavor enhancers.

Foods like kim chee, in its many forms and flavors, has pierced the foodie psyche in many areas. Sriracha hot sauce has joined the pantheon of food condiments that grace most every restaurant table in America. But the foods that were being boasted about at the Studies Center had to have a refrigerator-door pedigree.

You know the ones that have been in the fridge so long the labels on the jars have worn off. The ones that no longer enjoy the status of being on the top shelves and have been relegated to the back of the fridge or lower-shelf status. These are the jars that get replenished if you are lucky enough to still have Obachan puttering around.

Once I followed my Obachan into the garage. She went to the back corner into the deep, dark recesses of the structure. There in the corner was an earthen urn covered with a wooden lid that had a large, heavy stone on top of it.

Actually the wooden lid was snugly placed just inside the mouth of the urn and the stone acted as a weight that pressed the lid downward. Bachan lifted the heavy stone with little difficulty, placed it on the ground and removed the wooden lid. After a few moments a pungent smell started to fill the air. Yes, it was stinky, but it had a familiar fermented smell to it.

Bachan then reached in and extracted a pulpy mass/mess and placed it in a small wash basin. With her other hand she squeegeed off her lower arm. An oatmeal-looking substance dripped back into the urn. Then she replaced the wooden lid, said rock and off she went.

Several times I witnessed her not taking something out but putting something in. Usually it was some raw vegetable like nappa cabbage, cucumber or Japanese eggplant (nasubi). Other times she’d dump in any left-over hot cereal from breakfast, old rice from dinner or okayu that had been sitting around.

As it turned out, these ingredients were making up her fermented tsukemono starter, like a sourdough starter. She probably brought some of it with her when we moved her from Elk Grove to live with us after Ojichan died.

What has this got to do with natto? It’s all shades of brown, all stinky, it involves different levels of fermentation and it all tastes yummy! At least the aficionados think so.

On judgment day at the center, folks marched in with their fermented bean curd. They strutted through the door holding bottles of fermented anchovy paste aloft. Others slinked in like undercover agents bearing the most secretive of concoctions developed in some clandestine lab in a cave high up in the Himalayas.

People in the Chicano, African and Native American Studies Centers down the hall stuck their heads out their office doors. All could only stammer, “dammmmmn,” followed by rhetorical queries asking “who or what died.”

With wrinkled glabella (skin between your eyebrows) lines, with quivering nose hairs, eyes watering, guttural sounds emanating from deep down in the bowels of humanity, the contest to see who had the funkiest, stinkiest, yuckiest food or condiment unfolded. Actually it was unleashed like the smoke from a tear gas grenade.

Out of the smoke and primeval firmament arose the winner. Midst resignation and defeat, Snatto, I mean natto, ruled supreme that day in the Asian American Studies Center.


Warren Furutani has served on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, on the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees, and in the California State Assembly. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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