A week ago I was presented with a dilemma. I can’t read the school lunch menu well, so I don’t bother to read it whatsoever. This was a mistake.
Natto happened. This food is legitimately the world’s most disgusting food. The first time I had it, I spit it out. It’s fermented rice paste. Sounds appetizing right? Yeah, no. So for school lunch, we had natto poured over rice.
The first thing one notices about natto is the smell, trapped somewhere between crap and poop, or garbage can juice. It’s a repulsive smell that sticks itself to the insides of your nose and tries to bury itself into your neurosystem, triggering a constant gag reflex for hours.
So as I approached the teachers’ room, I knew there was going to be a problem. I gagged once, soldiered on, and then saw the devil’s spawn on my lunch tray. Immediately I took the bowl off my try and exiled it to the far reaches of my desk. I ate the remainder of my sad lunch amidst whiffs of that vile miasma.
I took my food to the back of the room when I was finished. Placed my untouched natto on the table, and walked away.
Everyone thought it was funny that I didn’t eat natto. I however found it less funny and more annoying. Why would they do that, I asked myself. There are plenty of students who can’t stand the stuff. Why make it part of the main meal? Why not put it on the side instead of directly on the rice?
However, this sort of mindset seems to be the way things work in Japan. Students, especially in elementary school, are expected to eat all of their food whether they like it or not. This can be a bit of a problem. Every day there’s at least one student that sits, staring forlornly at their food.
Natto day seems to be an exertion of power. Natto is Japanese. Japanese people like natto. But, when I asked a student why he didn’t like a Thai dish, the response was “because it isn’t Japanese food. It’s Thai food.”
This is sort of strange to me. I’m in Japan, a country with some of the least impressive cuisine options in the world, I’d argue, and I like lots of food here. But Japanese people tend to shun the non-Japanese. It might be less because it’s not good, and more because it isn’t Japanese.
Cool cultures are given preference in the food realm. American food is epitomized in hamburgers and steak. Italian food, despite Japan’s horrific distortions of it, is revered here as well. Even Chinese food is held up pretty high.
However, Mexican food is impossible to find here, despite its high place in the western world. I’ve found more Spanish restaurants than Mexican restaurants in Japan. Spanish restaurants are nearly impossible to find in the US, especially outside of major cities.
But Spain is cool here. Mexico isn’t. France is cool here, so there’s a creperie in every town and multiple “pâtisseries.” You’d be hardpressed to find a French restaurant in a suburban or rural town in the United States, though.
Japanese people are always ready to defend the social norm, it seems. Instead of saying, maybe Tacos are delicious, they’re much more likely to think of Mexico as a place full of drugs. And Japanese food is the best, because Japan is the best country in the world. That must be why when I ask my students “What country do you want to go to” half of them say Japan.
You’re already here.
If you follow me on Twitter you’ll never have to eat natto again!