No, please, not natto day . . .

Turning Japanese

TANIA BUTTERFIELD
Last updated 14:48 30/10/2012
Charcoal icecream
This is better: Tania Butterfield with her serving of charcoal icecream, which she found much more palatable than the natto made from fermented soybeans.

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I'm in recovery mode. Not because I got drunk last night but because of the strange foods I have eaten in the past 24 hours.

Yesterday, the dreaded natto day arrived.

I knew it was coming. Every class I teach asked me during my introductory lesson whether I liked natto and my response was simply "mada taberu koto ga arimasen" - I have never tried. The teachers all excitedly told me we have natto in school lunches.

I prayed natto day would come on a day when I was at the school and ate in the teachers' room so if I didn't eat it or vomited, none of the students would see. But it wasn't.

Apparently it happens once a month but we seem to have got by without it this month.

All I had heard about natto was that it is disgusting. My high school Japanese teacher described it as a grey, gooey, sticky mess of beans that is a real struggle to swallow as it will stick to the top of your mouth and your throat.

Wikipedia described natto as a traditional Japanese food made from soybeans fermented with Bacillus subtilis. It smells like pungent cheese and tastes nutty, savoury and salty, it said.

All the other teachers on the Jets programme were dreading natto day and, despite getting our school lunch menu in advance, I could not read the kanji. So, as I was walking back to the teacher's room after class, I saw all the students with these covered containers. I stopped. Surely not. Oh please, no.

In the teachers' room, the vice-principal and head of education were sitting at the front of the room eating.

"Natto," they said proudly. "Good luck."

I grabbed my "happy bunny and cat" chopsticks and started to walk toward my classroom. As I walked along the hallway, the teachers stood at their classroom doors and wished me luck.

"Ganbarre," they say. Reminded me of the execution scene in The Green Mile.

My classroom was set up for lunch with all the students facing me. All of them had the perfect view of my first natto experience.

I didn't know what to do. I sat there a few minutes watching them open their containers and this web-like thing coming up with the lid. I was starting to sweat.

"Don't think, just do," I told myself as I opened the lid. Wikipedia was right and a peg would have come in handy.

I watched as the kids poured soy sauce on it. They love natto and I think the sauce covers the taste.

I tried to open the sauce packet. It burst all over the table and floor and on to the kid in front of me.

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So I had to go without and got the full flavour of the stuff. It is difficult to explain. When it touched my tongue the gag reflex sort of came automatically. I can't compare it with anything, but I imagine it's what eating rusting metal would be like.

It took me an hour but I ate it all and triumphantly walked the hallway showing the teachers my empty container. But never again.

That night, my base school held a party for me and another Jet. The first thing on the menu included snails. Not nicely garnished snails like you might expect at a French restaurant.

These looked like they had been plucked from the garden, had their heads chopped off and a toothpick shoved in. They were difficult to get out of the shell and tasted like fish. Not my cup of tea, but after eating natto I figured I was invincible, so ate not one but two snails. At least it entertained my colleagues as they watched me choke them down.

It's not the weirdest thing I have eaten in Japan.

My friend and I treated ourselves to black icecream while out exploring Nagahama. It tasted pretty good, if a bit sandy.

We weren't entirely sure what it was but figured it didn't really matter. A few weeks ago, we found out it was charcoal icecream.

Tania Butterfield is a former Express reporter teaching English at two schools in the Shiga prefecture of central Japan.

- The Marlborough Express

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