Natto on Santa’s List

You better be good for goodness' sake ...
Illustration by Jing Tsong

It’s the classic admonition of the holidays: Polite, sweet children get presents, candy and treats, while naughty brats receive only coal in their stockings. But to an Island kid in 2007, coal won’t even register. You might need a new form of saber rattling to avoid a meltdown at Toys R Us. What can you lord over the little tot instead?

Well, if you wanted me to behave, you’d skip the coal talk and threaten me instead with a big scoop of natto.

My introduction to natto was a rocky experience. I innocently popped a big wad of it into my mouth at Genki Sushi, thinking it was creamed corn. (I know, classic newbie mistake.) But swiftly I determined: Not corn. This was an appalling mouthful of sticky, stringy, smelly, chunky. I didn’t know if I should spit it into a napkin or call for an exorcism.

Once I recovered, I learned that natto is made from fermented soybeans, and often enjoyed for breakfast in Japan. But it’s so odious to those of us who aren’t acclimated to it that there are signs at some breakfast buffets in Japan reading, “May not be suitable for Westerners.” In fact, one morning at a hotel in Tokyo, I had a waitress come up and yell Natto! while making the sign of an X with her arms.

Now, some of you probably love natto, and godspeed, my friends. It’s just one of those flavors that you have to acquire a taste for early in life. Like in the womb.

So let’s say you have very bad child, non-coal-phobic, enjoys natto. What nastiness might be lurking in his stocking?

“Rice pudding is very strange for me. I refuse to put sugar in my rice,” suggested a Japanese friend. “Oatmeal is very strange, too.”

“Poi,” chimes in my Aussie coworker. “No matter what, it always tastes ‘off’ to me.”

I don’t know. Pudding, oatmeal and poi—messy, wholesome, but not exactly scary.

My Swedish friend says she’d shudder if someone put pork rinds or lotus roots in her stocking. But she thinks American children would run from surströmming.

It’s fermented, canned herring, and you know it’s ready to eat when the can starts bulging. In fact, the contents are under so much pressure, airlines in Stockholm had to ban it from their planes. And get this—you open the can of surströmming underwater, or risk being showered with an explosion of brine.

“It smells like a dead body,” my friend cheerfully notes, “but tastes good. We usually eat it outside.” Of course, this is the same culture that enjoys blood pudding with lingonberries for dessert, so, a putrid herring rocketing around the kitchen is probably just considered festive.

Another friend, of Filipino descent, suggested that balut might scare some kids straight. “My dad says it’s food you eat in the dark.” Yes, a snack consisting of a boiled duck fetus—now that should get a naughty child toeing the line, and pronto.  

You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why. Someone will give you a leaking can of surströmming and a balut ….  

You know what? Natto is starting to sound good. Happy holidays!