On a visit to Tokyosome years ago, I astonished Japanese friends by enthusiastically devouring a plate of a local specialty called natto. The Times today reports that natto is undergoing something of a renaissance in Japan because it is thought to aid weight loss. Insomuch as it is likely to put most people off eating for several weeks, I can only wonder that this momentous discovery has taken so long. Here’s The Times’ description,
‘It smells like a mixture of overripe Gorgonzola and putrefying mushrooms. Its texture is that of slugs stuffed with mozzarella. It is natto, or rotten soya beans, and is one of the world’s most challenging foods, as loved and loathed in Japan as black puddings are in Britain or rotten herrings in Sweden.’
Although I have never tried slugs stuffed with mozzarella, which sounds delicious, I can verify that the aroma of natto easily surpasses what we used to call ‘tween toes’ as children. Tween toes cheese for example was what your parents rounded off their sophisticated dinner parties with, accompanied by Ritz crackers and tawny port. In the morning, you’d find a mostly untouched lump of tween toes Danish blue curling up in the fridge like a particularly unhygienic elf’s slipper, infecting your apple crumble.
I did quite like natto. It’s surprising how significant quantities of sake can make almost anything appetising – even raw prawns. If I’d known about its weight loss properties, I might have become more of a devotee over the years but I suspect the amount of sake you’d need to drink to get in the natto mood may cancel out its perceived benefits. Sake is extremely fattening. You’re much better off with Sauvignon Blanc and crudités of carrot, celery and courgette dipped in humus light.
The article did make me think about how much our cultural differences are amplified by the food we eat and the etiquette that accompanies it. Almost all the tension in the Celebrity Big Brother house which culminated in serious allegations of racism against several participants, can be traced back to the choosing, preparation, eating and after effects of food and drink. Off the top of my head I can think of twenty scenes in movies in which a character is ‘classed’ by their knowledge of food and its accompanying implements. The golden rule of working your way from the outside in with cutlery is not always applicable. I had one awful experience in Paris there I thought the escargot extractor was an eyelash curler. With the French you just don’t know, do you? Suffice to say that boyfriend never invited me to meet his parents again.
When I first came to London in 1982, I was staggered by the narrow band of culinary experience I encountered. I met adults who had never eaten Chinese or Italian cuisine and thought that curry and chips was Indian food and quite exotic. It was a shock because, like most Australians, I considered my birthplace a cultural outpost and expected London to be a massive menu of cosmopolitan options. Thankfully, these days, our epicurean choices are much expanded but, within the last five years, I have attended a professional dinner at a Japanese restaurant where at least half of my fellow diners did not realise that sushi comprised raw fish. So much for Yo Sushi!
I sometimes think I would have made a great travel correspondent because I have never been to a place I didn’t like. I am lukewarm about Florence, which I have visited three times, and that’s mostly because it’s difficult to find a decent place to eat there. And it wasn’t down to a lack of open-mindedness on my part. One of my favourite places is the Venice fish market because most of the food is still moving. You know that’s fresh.
I’ve always thought I could do a better job than most of those people on holiday programmes because I would at least be prepared to try the food. I’ve seen reporters abroad recoiling at the sight of oysters – a classic British food. I love oysters. My godparents lived near the HawkesburyRiver and I can remember picking Sydney rock oysters and eating them, live and fresh. I’ve also picked oysters on StradbrokeIsland with the late and legendary Australian poet Oodgeroo. I could do I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, except that I don’t like snakes and spiders and I’m not a celebrity. If anyone wants to offer me a travel gig, I’m fit, packed and ready to go.
If this week has illuminated anything about Britain, it is that we are only too keen to judge people by what they are willing to reveal about their own culinary knowledge of the world. Jade Goody has taken a lot of flak but now her unique diet secret can be shared. OXO cubes are the Jade equivalent of natto. No need to purchase her expensive DVD to emulate her exquisite figure. Simply put three OXO cubes into your pot noodle, pour yourself a large glass of whatever is going and scoff the lot. Belch, fart and then throw up. At least the children’s apple crumble won’t be ruined…