Over the years, I have repeatedly had a very specific conversation with various students and instructors. This conversation was about my belief that in order for a person to be a well-rounded martial artist they had to immerse themselves into the culture of the country that the martial art they practice was from. I am in no way saying that they need to become Korean, Japanese, etc. or that they have to act like they are Korean, Japanese, etc. What I am saying is that a martial artist should basically have a working understanding of the culture of their art’s country of origin through a hands on approach. It was, after all, that culture that defined the art and made it what it is today. This belief of mine comes from the first Taekwondo school I attended. They required that I be able to use chopsticks before I could take my black belt exam. At that time in my life I thought it was a ridiculous skill to require and had nothing to do with Taekwondo. I was told I had to learn to use them because as a black belt I would be eating with Korean Masters from time to time and that I would offend them if I used a fork to eat my food. Seriously? What a ridiculous reason, but a requirement was a requirement and I learned how to use them. Regardless of the reason, I still use them today and prefer them over a fork.
Around the same time, I visited the home of Grandmaster Kyongwon Ahn with Master Van Hee (at the time he was Jim). Mrs. Ahn was very kind to us and brought out a bowl of Kimchi (she makes the best Kimchi I have ever had and I have had a lot of Kimchi). It should be noted that I had already had Kimchi but Master Van Hee hadn’t. Mrs. Ahn, upon setting the bowl down, said, “It’s hot.” Master VanHee assuming she meant “temperature hot” and not “spicy hot”, immediately shoveled a very large fork-full (yes she had forks) into his mouth. The look on his face was priceless. It took him tremendous willpower not to run to the bathroom and spit it out. He had thought it was cooked cabbage with barbecue sauce. Today he loves Kimchi, but back then was a different story.
I could go on and on with stories of how I learned about different cultural customs, manners, foods, etc. but I want to write a series of posts on these topics and not just one. Looking back over the years at how I learned these various things, I was yelled at after offending people, laughed at after making a fool out of myself, praised because I knew something that was deemed something I shouldn’t have known, and I enjoyed every minute of it. These are the things that the people who invented the arts we practice, lived with on a daily basis and make no mistake about it, they influenced the creation of the those arts. Now, is it absolutely essential to know how to use chopsticks in order to be a good black belt? No! However, it is the popcorn, hotdogs and soda that make attending a baseball game enjoyable. Can you imagine going to a game and not having the people selling all those incredibly delicious items? I can’t. Those simple foods are what makes going to a game a complete experience, even though they really have nothing directly to do with baseball.
For my first post in this series I picked a Japanese food that is either a “love it” or “hate it” food for most people: Natto.
I was first exposed to Natto on one of my week-long visits to Kanjuro Shibata XX Sensei’s House in Boulder, CO. In addition to watching me practicing Kyudo every day, Sensei would cook at least one meal a day for me. I would always offer to cook but he would make a face, shake his head and say “no.” Not that I am complaining because he is an amazing cook. There will be a few more posts about other foods he exposed me to, in the coming weeks. Anyway, back to the Natto. It was lunch time and Sensei and I were sitting at a table outside, under a big tree. David, Sensei’s live-in assistant at the time, brought out three bowls of rice and three odd-looking Styrofoam square boxes.
I should have known something was up when David sat down with a huge grin on his face. Sensei was also looking very mischievous (well as mischievous as a living Samurai can be anyway). I opened the Styrofoam and found a layer of brownish soybeans covered with plastic wrap, a pouch of soy sauce and a pouch of mustard. So acting like I knew exactly what I was doing, I removed the two pouches and took off the plastic wrap. If they thought I was “in the know” up to that point, they knew I wasn’t as soon as the smell hit my nose (it smells like really really smelly cheese). They then both started laughing (well Sensei did this really cool Samurai sort of chuckle). I was then instructed on the finer art of how to eat Natto.
Before I go into detail on how to eat Natto, here is what Wikipedia has to say about how it is produced:
Nattō is made from soybeans, typically nattō soybeans. Smaller beans are preferred, as the fermentation process will be able to reach the center of the bean more easily. The beans are washed and soaked in water for 12 to 20 hours to increase their size. Next, the soybeans are steamed for 6 hours, although a pressure cooker can be used to reduce the time. The beans are mixed with the bacterium Bacillus subtilis natto, known as nattō-kin in Japanese. From this point on, care has to be taken to keep the ingredients away from impurities and other bacteria. The mixture is fermented at 40 °C (104 °F) for up to 24 hours. Afterwards the nattō is cooled, then aged in a refrigerator for up to one week to allow the development of stringiness. During the aging, at a temperature of about 0 °C, the bacilli develop spores, and enzymatic peptidases break down the soybean protein into its constituent amino acids.
Historically, nattō was made by storing the steamed soybeans in rice straw, which naturally contains B. subtilis natto. The soybeans were packed in straw and left to ferment. The fermentation was done while the beans were buried underground beneath a fire or stored in a warm place in the house, for example under the kotatsu.
Regardless of the process, Japanese manufacturers need permission from the prefectural government, as required by food sanitation law. Most of the natto on sale is made using B. subtillus natto as a seed germ that is cultivated in a pure culture.
Alright, now that all the technical stuff is out-of-the-way, how is Natto eaten? As I said before, it comes with soy sauce and yellow mustard and is commonly eaten with white rice. Below are the step by step eating directions:
- Open container.
- Remove soy sauce and mustard pouches.
- Remove plastic wrap cover and try not to inhale (well at least until you have eaten it several times and start to appreciate the finer qualities of its aroma).
- Use chopsticks to stir the Natto (it will be in a hardish lump).
- Don’t get sick by looking at the long slimy mucus strings that drip off the Natto when stirring.
- Add a raw quail egg (optional – well Sensei didn’t make it optional my first time) and stir.
- Add soy sauce and mustard. Stir.
All joking aside, Natto is an acquired taste. I have never met anyone that liked it the first time they tried it. I’m not sure why I like it, maybe it is because Sensei said, “Samurai ate it all the time.” or maybe because it is cool to like something that smells and looks so disgusting but I do like it. It should be noted however that eating Natto is a skill that isn’t easily mastered. When you lift some Natto up to your mouth, there will be those long slimy strings connecting your mouth to the Natto container. There is a very specific technique for getting rid of those with your chopsticks after the Natto is in your mouth. It is done by rapidly circling the chopsticks in a small circle half way between your mouth and the container, as if you were coiling up string.
So why eat it? Believe it or not, for the health benefits. Below is a list of proven and unproven claims about the medical benefits of eating Natto:
- According to Sensei, it is a common dish for monks in Japan and it helps with their meditation practice.
- Lowers Cholesterol.
- Prevents Obesity.
- Antibiotic. The Japanese Navy used it to treat dysentery during WWII.
- It contains cancer fighting chemicals. These are the same chemicals that are in tofu however.
- It contains large amounts of vitamin K2.
- Is currently be studied as a way to prevent Alzheimer’s.
- It is generally accepted that consuming Natto reduces blood clots.
- And last but certainly not least, it causes men with hair loss to regrow their hair.
If you get a chance, give it a try. Just imagine you have walked all day, you have just removed your swords and have sat down for your first meal of the day. You remove a container filled with Natto out of your Kimono, along with your chopsticks. You open the container and start eating.
Hopefully that imagery will help.
Something to think about….