I was greeted with a pleasant surprise on April 19 when I opened my Gmail account. There was to be a debut release party for an organic natto product the next day at San Francisco's Ozumo. This almost felt like when I heard the news for the release date of the latest Pavement album in the 1994 (Wowee Zowee). I could already imagine being in a room full of natto-heads - obsessing over the stretchiness of the fermented soy bean strings instead of say, Steve Malkmus' improvisational lyrics.
In a overexcited flurry, I contacted Kayoko to see if she could make it, then I called my sister. It seemed that I lacked a date to this "gig" but it did not hinder my enthusiasm when I thought of indulging in tasty natto bites over flasks of sake. In less than 24 hours I was riding the BART over to the Embarcadero. The entrance to Ozumo was just how I remembered it when I went for dinner nearly seven years ago - hip-snazziness circa 2000 for the dot-com singles scene. The event was held in the front bar area, and a big poster was placed at the entrance - Megumi Natto.
Ozumo, San Francisco entrance
Ozumo bar tabletops with organic Megumi Natto
Appetizer menu for the event. Sadly, I did not get to try all of them. Just the rolls.
Unfazed by my friendless state, I indulged in little rolls of natto-maki and sake. I had to say that I was impressed by the quality of the natto. Firm and really stretchy, these soy jewels tasted nutty and full of umami. Since they were not frozen, they exhibited the same "life" that my home made natto does, they were not mushy or mealy.
Natto with shiso and ume
I later talked to the founder of Japan Traditional Foods, Mr. Sato and his colleague "Dallas" who make the natto and found out that I was holding the first ever organic natto sold in America. They make one batch a week and deliver it to several West Coast locations including the Berkeley Bowl West, Nijiya Markets and UWAJIMAYA Seattle, just to name a few. Mr. Sato also advised me to smell the natto - he said that they are also sensitive to making the natto smell less pungent. I do not know whether this is a result of the organic process, but it was true - organic Megumi Natto smelled less strong than the varieties imported from Japan (although as a natto-head, I really love that smell).
"Dallas" and Sato-san
Organic Megumi Natto
By the end of the night, I was able to satisfy my urge to talk passionately about natto, make friends and have three glasses of sake. My BART ride home was a happy one and as soon as I got home, I went to the Megumi Natto website where I found a video of Mr. Sato demonstrating different natto recipes. I commend them for trying to break into the non-Japanese market, but the recipe for "Natto Bagel" is not one I am in a hurry to try. I still think that natto over rice is the best way to savor this food.
The release party for Megumi Natto signaled a new era for me. It's time that natto enters the American vernacular - it may take a while, but it is happening thanks to people like Mr. Sato and the readers of Umamimart. If one does decide to plunge into the world of natto, I would say that the less pungent-smelling organic Megumi Natto might be a suitable choice.
A friend of mine who recently tried natto for the first time mentioned that he had it with shiso which kind of "canceled-out" the signature natto smell - therefore making it bearable for him to eat. Using foods such as shiso and mustard as "training-wheels" for natto seems like a pretty good idea. Although, I would say that in an ideal world, only people who love natto should eat it just as I see no need to force mashed peas down a crying baby's throat. It's an insult to the peas that enthusiastically grew under the sun and to the person who carefully mashed them.
One last roll for the road