Acquired Tastes

I have ridden the slow, sensory learning curve of many foods and beverages: tofu took me years, mentaiko (salty cod row) took months, and scotch required many sessions of stubborn sipping before I found its profound palatal payoff... but nothing challenges one's tastebuds like a certain fermented bean celebrated by generations of Japanese culinary consumers - what I consider to be the undisputed King of acquired tastes: natto.

Aside from that, what distinguishes natto from other challenging - and flat-out gross - foods is that when it comes to nutrition, it may indeed be a superfood. Otherwise, it would have been bannished to the realm of Great Culinary Mistakes long ago. The word on the nutritional streets is that it is good for your bones, blood, intestines, allergies and even encourages longevity, which is what has driven me to put such an effort behind learning to love it.

I've eaten chicken sashimi, which took a serious leap of faith (not to mention my doctor's office number on speed-dial) ... I thrill to the sound of SPAM containers opening... I have clipped and skarfed the tentacles off of live squid staring back at me... I've celebrated the Japanese delicacy of fish eyes...and I've eaten deep-fried cockroaches from Bangkok food stalls - but all those dubious treats are 'creampuffs and chocolate sauce' compared to natto.

If your pallete doesn't toss up digestive warning flags, set defensive tongue-bells ringing and send your nostrils into a sensory tailspin, then you're dead from the nose to the chin. It smells like upchuck and on a scale of slimyness (steamed okra being a 10) it's a 15. In the inital stages of natto consumption, I mixed it with pickled plums and mustard and - at all costs - avoided eye contact with the spittle-esque bean mass.

But now, I can't get enough of the stuff; I eat it straight-up and I eat it daily...sometimes as a refreshing afternoon snack. My pallate is now exhibiting acceptance way beyond its previously established tolerance. (Japan encourages personal growth in so many strange and wondrous ways.) Some would say its time for a taste bud intervention… I half expect one day to find friends waiting for me on my doorstep with a grocery bag full of Cheetos, Crackerjacks and Hershy Kisses.

But that said, as you find yourself belly-up to the internationalization buffet table, realize that natto is just one of the many delights/horrors this culture has to offer. You be the judge which is which - it's all so subjective... but don't be hasty... if you can keep an open mind, the very things you once could barely tolerate may eventually become among the things you appreciate the most.