May 22nd, 2010

I’m saying no to natto

I like food, and I like foreign food especially. But I must confess (shhh!) that Japanese food is not one of my favorite cuisines.

Don’t get me wrong: I eat it and enjoy it. But it’s way down on my list, after Middle Eastern and Greek and Italian and French and Chinese, maybe just a bit above German and Russian (which I really don’t like—sorry, Sergey and Tatyana).

So, because of my lukewarm attitude towards Japanese food, perhaps I’m not being objective when I predict that this effort will not catch on here. At the risk of sounding juvenile, I will add that fermented soy products such as natto are yucky. And I think most of America will agree.

Even a great many Japanese are not keen:

Many Japanese shy away from natto, the slimy fermented soybean found in Japanese cuisine. Yet Minami Satoh is on a mission to get Americans to embrace the smelly food…

Mr. Satoh’s long odds are evident at Ame. The Michelin-starred Japanese-inspired restaurant in San Francisco has offered Mr. Satoh’s natto for the past year as a $2 option to add to a dish with cuttlefish, sea urchin and salmon roe.

“I’ve asked our wait staff to encourage customers to try it out because even if they don’t like it, it’s only $2 extra,” says chef Hiro Sone. But even after the encouragement, only about 60% of the customers request it and most of them are people who were previously familiar with natto, he says.

And remember, these naysayers are folks who are already ordering a dish with cuttlefish, sea urchin, and salmon roe. Not the culinarily provincial, I’d wager.

I’ve never eaten natto, although I’m quite familiar with its cousin tempeh, which I absolutely detest. The difference between the two foods is subtle, but it sounds as though natto is even worse than tempeh—and that’s saying quite a bit:

Natto is soybeans fermented by bacteria, tempeh is fermented by fungus.

I’ve never eaten natto. If the descriptions I’ve read are accurate, it is disgusting; one of the more difficult to acquire tastes you’ll ever find.

And that quote is from an article in a newsletter put out by a naturopathic clinic trying to push natto as healthful, which no doubt it is. Must be really nasty stuff.

81 Responses to “I’m saying no to natto”

  1. Don Says:

    Mexican food is the best.

  2. neo-neocon Says:

    Don: I know I’m asking for trouble by saying this, but Mexican food is right up there with Japanese for me.

  3. Tatyana Says:

    That’s Ok, Neo -more good stuff for me, and you can have all your scorched…sorry, grilled Middle-Eastern stomach-turner!

    I share your cataloging of Japanese food, though: down there, right above Mongolian tea (boiled with milk, animal fat, salt and sometimes rice and fried grain)

  4. Artfldgr Says:

    Thats ok… I go back to my durian? 🙂

  5. ligneus Says:

    I don’t know what it’s called but a Japanese friend of mine eats fermented fish innards.
    I mean you want yucky.

  6. mizpants Says:

    I hate tempeh too! Blecchh. But I like tofu, especially the silken kind. As a texture freak, it appeals to me.
    My favorite cuisine is Moroccan. Indian is my second favorite and Vietnamese my third.
    I actively dislike Japanese food, though God knows I’ve tried.

  7. Tatyana Says:

    *ligneus (hi!):
    a few months ago I was re-reading Suetonius, and noted, in biography of Emperor Vitellius, a notorious glutton, how UN-appetizing are some of the extremely expensive dishes he consumed:

    Most notorious of all was the dinner given by his brother to celebrate the emperor’s arrival in Rome, at which two thousand of the choicest fishes and seven thousand birds are said to have been served. He himself eclipsed even this at the dedication of a platter, which on account of its enormous size he called the “Shield of Minerva, Defender of the City.”20 In this he mingled the livers of pike, the brains of pheasants and peacocks, the tongues of flamingoes and the milt of lampreys, brought by his captains and triremes from the whole empire, from Parthia to the Spanish strait

  8. expat Says:

    My rule of thumb is to avoid foods recommended by health freaks. The way to live longer is to avoid health freaks and eat butter, olive oil, lard in pie crusts, etc–with salt. I#ve had some Japanes food that was OK, but I’d never put it on the menu for my last meal. I like Chinese but never want to confront a chicken foot. I’m still working on blue cheeses.

  9. expat Says:

    Tatyana, Remember too that this was in the days before refrigerated transport. Month-old pigeon brains, yuk.

  10. jon baker Says:

    Tex-Mex (often called “Mexican”) and Italian are my favorites.

    I have had more than one conversation complaining about the open border while eating Tex-Mex.


  11. deeboz Says:

    I am always open for new dining experiences, but after visiting Singapore and trying Durian fruit, I kind of lost my “I’ll try anything once” attitude. I’ve seen reports that “the King of Fruit” smells bad but taste great but I’m here to say, Durian fruit would probably make natto alright, but I’ve seen it (natto) and I will take a pass. Durian taste to me like rotted hamburger fermented in a stagnant pond.
    Additionally, Durian fruit is banned on mass transit in Singapore, can natto claim that! But over all, Japanese is great, provided one covers with high concentrations of Soy sauce and wasabi!

  12. Tatyana Says:

    *expat: yuk indeed.

    speaking of which:
    -blue cheese: check
    -calf testicles (sorry, Labrat)
    -tofu of any kind
    -beancurd ice cream (perverts!)

    On the other hand, I’ve been known to refuse to share my plate of escargot with co-diners in a good French restaurant… Hmmm.

  13. Gringo Says:


    Don: I know I’m asking for trouble by saying this, but Mexican food is right up there with Japanese for me.

    I am not a fan of Japanese food, either.

    Given what I have eaten of “Mexican” food in restaurants in eastern Massachusetts, I would vehemently agree with you. Black beans without even salt to season them. Food swimming in melted American cheese. Really bad food. When relatives in Mass. ask me if I want to eat Mexican when I visit them, I reply: would a Mass. native go out for fried clams or Indian pudding in Wyoming? Worst drivers and worst “Mexican” food in the US : that’s inside route 128, or eastern Mass. (Or at least the worst I have experienced, of both categories.)(I have read of a Mexican restaurant in southern Maine w good reviews.)

    I don’t know if you are referring to Tex-Mex or interior Mexican. Both are readily available where I live. Each has its charms. Interior Mexican is not as hot, with a more sophisticated blending of flavors. I would suggest Oaxaca as a place to try out food in Mexico- tasty and cheap, also. Seven different moles, and if you are adventurous the market ladies will give you fried chapulines (grasshoppers) to sample.

    I don’t go out to eat that much, but I incorporate dried and fresh chilies into my daily cooking. They taste best with strong flavors to offset them: chocolate, peanut butter, garlic, etc. I cook a corn bread with jalapenos, garlic, and onions. Also with some soy flour.

    Tortillas in the US – and often in Mexico also- are crepe-thin tasteless concoctions which are the corn equivalent of Wonder bread. Closer to the source, in southern Mexico and Central America, you can get tortillas as they should be- thick and tasting of corn.

    Everyday peasant/campesino food, with homegrown coffee, beans, tortillas and hot peppers, is simple but tasty. Throw in some mangoes and pineapples. They should eat more vegetables, though.

  14. vanderleun Says:

    Ah, a mind-meld over fermented soy. I actually saw and contemplated an entire refrigerator case filled with soy things such as Natto and others. Nearby there was a shelf on which soy puddingesque things waited that were still lukewarm to the touch.

    This was at the Ranch 99 Oriental supermarket just north of Seattle.

    I looked and I touched and then Yeats came to mind:

    “Horseman, pass by.”

  15. vanderleun Says:

    Mexican food? All I can say is that I’ve learned from experience to “pass by” home-style Mexican restaurants.

    By and large Mexican food is like middle-eastern pop music: One song.

  16. Grey Fox Says:

    “expat Says:
    Tatyana, Remember too that this was in the days before refrigerated transport. Month-old pigeon brains, yuk.”

    I would imagine that those brains were transported inside the heads of living birds. About the other ingredients, I am not so sure, but they may have been transported similarly.

  17. Vieux Charles Says:

    Forgive me Neo, I think you’re being a tad narrow here. Imagine if we judged all American food by the example of boiled okra as you have with ‘natto’.

    I spent seven years in Japan and Okinawa. My memory is filled with exquisite examples of tempura, teriyaki, udon, soba, sushi and short-grained ‘sticky’ rice, often with a shot of sake served in a wooden box cup or a chilled glass of Suntory beer.

    IMHO I’d put Japanese cuisine equal or slightly below most other food asian, but far and above anything served on a pita.

  18. expat Says:

    Grey Fox, You’re probably right, but even fresh, they don’t appeal.

  19. The Brickmuppet Says:

    I long ago came to the conclusion that Natto is an elaborate and sadistic joke that the Japanese play on foreigners. The Japanese who admit they don’t like natto are simply not in on the joke, perhaps because they are not members of the responsible fraternity/sorority.

    Anyway, that is my theory and I am sticking to it. 🙂

  20. ligneus Says:

    Hi Tatyana! Don’t think I’ve seen you over at Alan’s blog lately.

  21. Perfected democrat Says:

    1. Italian (If I could eat only one type for the rest of my life, definitely Italian!)
    2. American (Variety is the spice of life, and American almost has it all, compliments of the “melting pot”!)
    3. Asian (Japanese first, yes, delicate, light, fun, Chinese second, Vietnamese third, others…)
    4. Mexican…
    5. European…

  22. Marine's Mom Says:

    The Maoris in New Zealand eat raw sea urchin, or kina, as they call it, which is the most evil-smelling thing I have ever encountered. It’s funny how our palates become accustomed to the foods of our childhood. I am not an adventurous eater at all.

  23. Artfldgr Says:

    It’s taking me a bit, but I now can eat durian. my wife likes it a lot with avocado.

    the day i retire i think i will sit at my desk and eat it. 🙂

    and your right, you cant take it on the rails. many hotels wont let you have it either.

  24. RickZ Says:

    I think the reason cuisines like real Japanese, real Chinese, real Mexican, etc., are not liked – or even abhorred – is that those cultures use all parts of critters, both land based and from the water, unlike here in America. We have lost touch with our food. For example, my father loved scrambled eggs and calf brains. Don’t see that on many menus. I love octopus, grilled, marinated, stewed, etc. Lovely dishes, but most people would turn their noses up at it. Heck, when I was a kid, there was a pig hanging upside down with a hole in its head on the hill outside my Grandma’s house. The next day, I saw my Dad’s mom, his sister and my Mom stuffing homemade sausage into pork intestines. Great sausage, though it was so full of hot pepper that one cried when it was cooking. How many people cook whole fish? Can’t have those bones served, now can we?

    When the SHTF, we’ll all be finding out about things like goat’s head soup (which is not just a Rolling Stones album). Pickling is another thing that will come back, as pickled foods last. Let’s face it, how many people even use anchovies in cooking? A Caesar salad without anchovies is not a Caesar salad. I use anchovies in my tomato sauces for pizza and seafood pastas. And how many people use dried beans instead of the beans that come in a can? (The price difference alone is amazing.) Convenience is the death of anything resembling American cuisine, including the food of the cultures that came here. Prego tomato sauce or Mexican salsa in a jar, anyone?

  25. Good Ole Charlie Says:

    For the last few yeas we have spent a month with our Mandarin students in a largish city (provincial capital) in Hebei province. The school we attend furnishes us with a maid/cook: an older woman who does not want to cook professionally full time.

    But each cook has been from a different native cuisine: (in the following order) Shandong, Mongol, Sichuan, Shanghai. According to my chef-daughter there are at least six separate major cuisines in China. We’re going to eventually try them all.

    So far are favorite is the Shandong, followed by Mongol. Meats are used for flavoring, largely vegetarian for dishes. Fruit is fresh, in season, and fabulous. Peaches and pears are unbelievably good, watermelon and pineapple are better than here. Only apples disappoint: very mealy and un-crisp.

    And you must try Bei Jing Kao Ya, aka Peking Duck. If truly adventuresome, “gou rou” means dog meat…black dogs a delicacy.

    Fish is fresh water and bony, served steamed. Pork is good, chicken and duck better (depending on preparation).

    And the main subject of conversation is always food. The standard greeting translates as “How well have you eaten today?” Sums it all up nicely…

  26. waltj Says:

    Durian, no thanks, although durian ice cream is surprisingly palatable. Tempeh is ok, but if it’s not there, I don’t miss it. All in all, I find Indonesian cuisine in general to be decent enough, but not something that the mere mention of which would make my mouth water. You get all types of it here in Jakarta, from blazing-hot Manadonese dishes from north Sulawesi, to Padang restaurants serving precooked food (how do you take your salmonella, rare or well-done?), to various styles of Javanese cooking, to street vendors selling e-coli and cyclospora along with their es cincau and mie ayam.

    If I had to rank order my favorite cuisines, it would probably look like this today, although my tastes do change over time:
    –Eastern Mediterranean (Greek, Turkish, Arab–the similarities between them are greater than the differences)
    –Non-vegetarian Indian
    –Italian (northern or southern, doesn’t matter to me)
    –American barbecue fare (grilled steaks, chicken, burgers, etc.)
    –British pub grub (fish & chips, cottage pie, etc. Yeah, it ain’t haute cuisine. So sue me.)
    –Polish (I grew up with it, so for me, a plate of galobki and pierogi is the ultimate comfort food)

    There you have it, proof positive, if any were needed, that humans, or at least this human, are indeed omnivorous.

  27. neo-neocon Says:

    waltj: I forgot Indian! I love Indian!

  28. jon baker Says:

    RickZ said: “We have lost touch with our food. For example, my father loved scrambled eggs and calf brains.”

    I agree. My father grew up eating squirrels, including the brains and scrambled eggs. I ate some squirrel growing up but only one brain. I dont think my niece and nephew have ever eaten squirrel. ( I wouldnt eat the brains of any mammal now due to the prion based diseases)

    A couple of days ago i picked a bowl full of plumbs. My niece and nephew apparently think it is too much work eating around the bug bites and worms that inhabit those otherwise delicious plumbs.

    We need to take my nephew hunting……

  29. jon baker Says:

    In my niece and nephews defence they will eat wild dewberries right off the vine.

  30. CV Says:

    Have tried hard to like Indian food, but I have come to the conclusion that I detest most of it. Except the lovely warm bread.

    The Japanese also invented tempura, teriyaki and soba noodles, and I salute them for that.

    I’m noticing a theme here. Basically I never met a carb I didn’t like.

  31. LisaM Says:

    This all reminded me of one of my favorite scenes from Barney Miller…

    Wojo: What IS this?

    Yemana: That’s my lunch!

    Wojo: It smells like garbage!

    Yemana: Garbage?! That’s a Japanese delicacy! Fish heads, cucumber rinds, cabbage leaves, celery tops… Come to think of it, that IS garbage!

  32. rickl Says:

    I had spaghetti and meatballs last night.

  33. Vinron Says:

    I’m thawing some natto to have for breakfast tomorrow. My mother (who is Japanese) fed it to me (in the USA) when I was a child and just called it sticky beans.

    I really had no idea how natto was made until very recently. I like to think of it as having good bacteria, like yogurt.

    Natto on a tortilla sounds disgusting tho. The man in the article is not going to find a way to sell natto to everyone.

  34. Gray Says:

    My crazy (white) doctor pal/neighbor eats natto every morning for breakfast. I like the stuff just fine….

    We had a durien and limburger party once. Smelly food is good food.


    I’ve eaten slices of dog liver straight out of the dog dipped in salt and washed down with soju.

    I’ve made venison haggis out of a deer I shot…

    Slices of pork fat wrapped in cow milk ducts and grilled. Delicious.

    I am a gastronaut.

    I’m still on a quest to eat live octopus “San Nakji”

  35. Gray Says:

    Having posted that, the funny thing is I was the pickiest eater as a kid!

    To my parents’ dismay, I lived on the blandest possible foods: cereal, hot dogs–no mustard, and scrambled eggs.


  36. Gray Says:

    No, I did run up against something I couldn’t palate in England: a chip buttie.

    It’s two pieces of bread with chips (french fries) and mayo in between.

    It’s a gastronomic atrocity.

  37. waltj Says:

    Gray: have to agree on the chip buttie. I’m not sure who thought that was a good idea, but he must have downed a few too many pints at the time. I like fries dipped in mayo (or tartar sauce; malt vinegar on the fish), but putting the whole mess on bread is a bit much. That other odd British invention I can do without is the cucumber sandwich. Cukes are fine plain or pickled, but the main sandwich filling should be meat and/or cheese.

  38. rickl Says:

    Bread is good, fries are good, and mayo is good.

    But I never had the desire to combine them.

  39. PA Cat Says:

    Give me Pennsylvania Dutch sausage, homemade sauerkraut, stewed apples as a side, good strong coffee, and shoofly pie for dessert. No place like home.

  40. expat Says:

    PA Cat, You are talking about home cooking to me, although shoofly pie is too sweet for me. Also pon haus, fried and served with homemade apple butter, slippery beef pot pie, or baked chicken pot pie–the list just goes on. Unfortunately, unless you butcher your own pigs and have your own garden and orchard, you can’t quite imitate the food, and it’s geared for large families. I think the appeal is less in the actual food and more in the social aspect of butchering day, apple butter making, and canning get-togethers. My family still does a corn freezing every summer in which hundreds of ears are husked and blanched, and the kernels put away for the next year. It’s great fun and lots of work.

  41. Andrew_M_Garland Says:

    “I’ve asked our wait staff to encourage customers to try it out because even if they don’t like it, it’s only $2 extra,” says chef Hiro Sone.

    That is the tipoff. If they offer a free sample, then they are confident that many people will want to buy some more.

    When they make you pay for the first experience, you have to know that almost no one comes back for another try.

  42. will Says:

    Screw the natto, pass the Bacon!

    Bacon, absolutely the best. If I was Headmaster of the Guantanamo School For Wayward Muslims it would be on the menu everyday. Canadian, domestic, wild, smoked, reconstituted etc. Yessir, them fellers would garner a real appreciation for the holiest of ham products. Might help that Obama guy with his attitude problem too.

  43. saveliberty Says:

    Natto is horrible. My little nieces* would eat it when they lived in Japan, but it’s not a pleasing food. I love roast eel, yakisoba and many other Japanese foods. Interestingly, Japanese are good about appreciating other foods such as pain au chocolat or black forest ham.

    *They are not so little now; this was years ago.

  44. Sergey Says:

    I also almost never eat traditional Russian food, not because I detest it, but because it is impossible to prepare the most tasty items of it without Russian stove. I have built myself half a dozen of different stoves from bricks and clay, but all they were rather simple, and Russian stove is so huge and complicated construction that I did not dare even dream to built one. The only exceptions are uha (fish soup) and slapjacks.

  45. mezzrow Says:

    As a fan of the original Japanese Iron Chef show, I recall the natto episode. At the end, iron chef Morimoto was asked how he would present natto to his American customers, and he replied, “Americans would never eat natto.” I will stand with Morimoto – he should know.

    As for the chip butty, take a trip to beautiful Sheffield and listen to the local anthem (unless you’re an Owl…)
    I guess they come greasy in Sheffield.

  46. expat Says:

    Sergey, In Germany they have masonry stoves called Kachelofen. Most seem to be used for heating, although a local builder has one in his showroom, in which the fire first heats a cooktop and ovens; then the heat travels through masonry tubes where it warms the big tiled oven in the main room of the house. It is a fascinating construction. My brief Google search only came up with Russian stoves for warming the house, but I didn’t notice how the cooking would be done. Any good links?

    I don’t plan to build a masonry stove, but I am interested in traditional lifestyles and crafts. It is especially interesting to see how stoves influence cuisine.

  47. Bob From Virginia Says:

    Health alert for people visiting New Guinea; do not, repeat do not, eat human brains served by the local cannibal population. There is a slow acting virus called Kuru that comes from eating the brain of an infected person.

    There is a Jewish Food Festival today in Cheyenne which after being the town Jew here in west Nebraska I dreaming about even though Middle East, particularly Lebanese, and Pakistani-Indian food are my favorites.

    I remember during my travels Turkish food was outstanding, particularly in light of what passes for cuisine in north Europe. I have not found a place in the US that serves as good Turkish as I found overseas.

  48. Sergey Says:

    Links I could not find, but can describe the stove. Basically, it is a tunnel furnace. Inside it is somewhat wider 1 meter, and around 2 meters long. There is a chamber before this tunnel like a chimney, so the smoke from the tunnel does not enter a room. Firewood is burned directly at the hearth of the tunnel. After all charcoal turned to ash, it is removed, and clay pots with foods are put deep in the tunnel. Directly on the hearth bread is baked. All foods are classified into two categories: “before loafs” and “after loafs”. In all cases, temperature is constantly drops, from red-hot tunnel vault to warm, a temperature at which food is served. It takes several hours, since the stove can weight as much as 3 tonnes. This is the secret of the true taste of Russian food: only in such device all baking, boiling, roasting is conducted at lowering temperature. Another secret is clay pots. They should be small and not covered with enamel: they are porous, and cooled by water evaporated from the pores, so you can put them even in red-hot furnace. All my attempts to reproduce authentic taste of Russian foods using other types of ovens or even masonry stoves or other pots failed.
    Once heated, such stove warms a log cabin for 3 days, without further firewood burning. That is why it is safe to use it: it need not be watched for when you sleep and does not issues any smoke or carbone monoxide. Also, you can wash yourself in it, like in sauna, using the ash instead of soap. This is more therapeutic than hygienic procedure: peasants heal themselves from reumatism or artritus, or simple flu.

  49. Sergey Says:

    That is how it looks:русская%20печь%20устройство&imgurl=

  50. Sergey Says:

    Sorry, try this:Русская_печь

  51. JBalconi Says:

    I like all sorts of food, but I think the problem with natto is the same problem I have had with a spoonful of miso added to a salad: Too strong! FYI my niece was reading a manga in which one of the villains was punished with a curse that made it so he could only eat natto. 🙂

    I have to respectfully disagree with RickZ on the idea of eating all the parts. I don’t think tastes can be forced. My father told me that his mother once served lutefisk on Christmas Eve. His father (Italian) loved fish and would never complain about anything she served, but even he said, “Maybe not for Christmas Eve.”

    I really enjoy bird gizzards, heart and livers, but I can’t stomach cow liver or tongue. My younger brother will become ill after eating anything with liver in it, even if he liked the taste. And despite all the home-canning, wine-making, meat-smoking, and cheese-making, no one in my family ever had a use for animal brains. Some parts simply belong in the pigs’ slop bucket.

  52. Sergey Says:

    It seems, I found the right link:
    A lot of information on this page.

  53. Don Says:

    Neo, if I lived in your neck of the woods, I might not like Mexican food either.

    As a small kid, my parents would take us to Tecate Mexico for dinner once a week.

    I’ve been all through Mexico, but mostly spent my time in Baja, or eating Mexican food here in southern CA.

    I know lots of hole in the wall Mexican places that are great, some larger fancy places that are only OK.

    While visiting Mississippi, I went to one Mexican place where the food was awful. In VA (in the Norfolk/VA Beach area) I’ve had OK Mexican food, nothing great.

  54. rickl Says:

    I remember going to an outdoor concert in Philadelphia about 20 years ago. There were lots of vendors selling everything, but one place in particular had vegetarian Indian food that was to die for.

    I never use that phrase “to die for”. Yet it’s the best way I can describe it. It was far and away the best vegetarian food I’ve ever eaten. The booth was run by a local restaurant that was owned and operated by Hare Krishnas. Say what you will about them, but they sure can cook.

  55. ALP Says:

    I am familiar with natto, along with other Japanese cuisine – my SO is half Japanese and loves to cook Japanese food.

    However, I would say Laotian/SE Asian pickled mud fish makes natto look positively appealing. The only way I can describe pickled mud fish is to imagine a food that smells like the worst cat breath you have ever encountered…

  56. rickl Says:


    I posted your link at GCP, and got this in response. Check it out. It has plans and everything.

  57. jon baker Says:

    I don’t know if beef fajitas are true Mexican or just Tex-Mex, but how can any meat lover not like them? The fajita meat is rolled up in tortillas, with your choice of added things like guacamole, sour creme, pico de gallo, etc…

    Thats good eating!

  58. neo-neocon Says:

    jon baker: I like fajitas when they’re good. But they’re usually not good. The Mexican restaurants in this part of the country tend to be dreadful, as many have pointed out.

  59. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    Balut, you eat balut? I salute you, sir.

    Natto, poi, balut, and chicken beaks I will eat only when there is nothing, absolutely nothing else to eat. Otherwise, bring it on!

  60. PA Cat Says:

    My father told me that his mother once served lutefisk on Christmas Eve.

    Lutefisk– described by my Norski friends in the Dakotas as the piece of cod that passeth understanding. Also defined as the way that Norwegians turn Christmas into Lent (i.e. a penitential season).

  61. LabRat Says:

    Heh heh. Yes, tastes can’t be forced. Given that I like a long list of other strongly-flavored fermented foods and various offals, I would give natto a try with a fairly high expectation of liking it. To me the cardinal sin of food is to be bland- I would rather have a nice meal of liver and onions, or calf fries and strong beer, than a plate of the flavor-free spaghetti in alleged “meat” sauce that certain of my family makes.

    How humans and other omnivores form a constellation of disgusts and preferences is fairly interesting; for obvious reasons, an omnivore benefits from eating widely, but also runs a powerful risk of poisoning, so there’s plenty of room in the system for food tastes to be fairly arbitrary rather than any sort of universal standard for disgust versus appeal. It’s also trainable; even an infant develops early preferences based on the flavor compounds that come through mother’s milk. (So new moms, if you want your kids to eat their vegetables when they move on to solids, eat your collards, brussels, broccoli, and spinach, and eat them in bunches.)

    Wide exposure tends to loosen up the palate and train the brain to appreciate novel flavors more readily, too- and even deep aversions can be retrained with repeated exposure. I used to not be able to touch anything that had come within intimate distance of a bell pepper. Now I merely don’t particularly like them, but I can eat them just fine and without disgust.

    As for Mexican, I don’t see why anyone would eat it in America that wasn’t living within shouting distance of a border state. The homogenized version is bland, bland, bland- but the various forms that have emerged out Cali-Mex, New-Mex, and border Tex-Mex are each distinct and often quite tasty.

  62. expat Says:

    Neo must have inspired this Onion poke at high-level American food and cooking skills.,17389/

  63. John F. MacMichael Says:

    I love Thai food. My family lived in Thailand when I was a kid (1966-69). We quickly learned to enjoy the local cuisine. After we returned to the States, for many years it was a treat reserved for special occasions to eat Thai food again. It required a trip up to San Francisco (we lived in the Bay Area then.)

    Nowadays there seems to be a Thai restaurant on every other corner (at least here in Portland.) They range from decent to fabulous. If my wallet and waistline could stand it, I could eat at a different Thai place every day for a month. And I still would not have exhausted the possibilities.

  64. Tatyana Says:

    Neo: I love Indian, too! And Thai (but not from a Chinese place…)
    There is a northern-Indian restaurant 3 blocks from my house (next to a Polish, then English “Fish-n-chips”, then Italian oven-pizza place, then Greek pastry-shop…yep, I live in gastronomical heaven) For some reason they are almost always empty there, although the food is delicious, portions – generous and they give 3 kinds of freshly-baked bread with 2 dips as appetizer for free.

    And I’ve been a patron of my local Thai long enough to remember his daughter (now married, pregnant with 2nd child) when she was in HS and helping out on weekends…

  65. SteveH Says:

    I quit reading comments after somebody dissed boiled okra. Grrrrr…And any family reunion in southern Georgia or Alabama is an event of the finest eating on the planet. Even moreso the longer the women’s dresses and the taller their hair!

  66. Gringo Says:

    Steve: my grandmother pan-fried breaded okra in bacon grease. Delectable. So good. She never boiled it, though.

  67. KBK Says:

    I’ve had good uni in Tokyo, and terrible in Palo Alto. When it’s bad, it’s disgusting.

    Bacteria and mold? Think cheese.

    Natto and tempeh? I’ve tried them, didn’t appreciate them. Maybe they weren’t fresh, which wouldn’t be surprising, given American dislike. Never tried them in Japan.

    I used to make my own tofu, before it was readily available.

  68. Artfldgr Says:

    ever body look sat me weird when i get the oxtail from the Jamaican jerk pork place… i dont know why, good food is good food..

    and waltj, you forgot to mention how when you get hot food (spicy) in Indonesia, as bourdain would say, it comes at the expert level.

    the second you get ‘in country’ you are inundated by the smells, with a background smell of burning bananna leaves and incense. and its hard to describe how food centric the indonesians are compared to, say ny residents, who tend to think they are foodies.

    but food is literally EVERYWHERE… and i wouldn’t knock the Ayam. I loved it… bought from a tiny cart down the block from my wife’s fathers place.

    but one thing is that Indonesian vacation is a food and religion vacation (not that your bothered by it, just that your completely immersed in it from end to end like your immersed in air).

    I am getting hungry thinking of the Ayam (chicken), and Sapi (beef – which pales to western beef), and seafood like you have never had in your life (and you thought you did when you went to Greece or parts of the Mediterranean years ago…)

    here is a list of the things that i ate as i traveled:
    soft shell crab, eel, chicken, beef, many kinds of shrimp, different kinds of lobster/shrimp like creatures, turtle, baby dragon, rabbit, lizard, frog, pork, coconut crab, rice, rice and more rice, sea cucumber, and a huge list of fruits like jack fruit, bananna, durian, pineapple, mango (oh, if you like mango, they have mango to die for), and lots more..

    and everywhere you go (i guess depending on season) there is a festival , with a banner across towns that are right up against towns. lots of markets, and lots and lots of food being sold in all kinds of traditional forms.

    i had come from a poor immigrant family, and so things are different but familiar. so when i traveled i did not see things at all as other westerners would, though they did try to accommodate me (such polite kind people – like old Europeans used to be).

    its nice to be in Indonesia, the TV sucks, and so people are people oriented. like old time Europeans, they spend their time on whats going on, who is in what way, helping this, bringing food to that, making sure to driop by here and there if you visit. large families, happy weddings…

    and as far as handling ills, and tribulations of life, a resiliency and healthiness that is completely lacking in the west. the numbers of my friends being broadsided by normal facts of life and age, and living, is phenomenal.

    i definitely look forward to the day when my wife and i will return and visit. might even be as near as next year to attend a wedding. 24 hour flight is a bear…

    i miss the family, and the food, and the whole place in general… and the photos… oy… (regret not sending the best to nat geo through my agency)…

    walt… you are lucky… (And i am too)…
    if i get in country again, i owe you a Bin Tang… 🙂

  69. waltj Says:

    Artfldgr, if you return to Tanah Air and I’m still here, I’ll drink any Bintang you want to buy:-). I like it better than the local Heineken (similar recipes, since the Heineken folks taught the Indos how to brew beer when the place was still under Dutch rule), and Bintang is cheaper besides.

    I’m not that big a fan of sambal and the other sources of gastronomical heat. Too much cabai rawit covers the flavor of the food, and I prefer my seasoning to be more on the subtle side. But yes, the mango, the pomelo (like a grapefruit, but sweeter), the jackfruit, and the many varieties of bananas, those I’m always up for.

    It’s true that Indonesians are extremely people-oriented, in ways that often surprise us “bules”. Like how many Western waiters/waitresses have you had who remembered what you had on your last visit…10 months ago? When that earlier occasion was your first visit to that restaurant? Happens all the time here. And yes, Indonesians appear to accept that bad stuff sometimes happens to good people, and that’s just the way life is. We in the West would do well to remember that. But for me, the intense intimacy that you like is too much of a trade-off for someone of my reserved, private nature.

  70. Tatyana Says:

    you reminded me of a very old joke, “the difference between emigration and tourism”.

  71. Tendryakov Says:

    Hang on, nobody’s mentioned Marmite. Now there is an inimitable gastronomic delight. It has been suggested that only those with anglo-saxon genes are able to enjoy it.

  72. Sergey Says:

    That taste perception can be partly genetically based, is at least plausible. Not that I know any direct evidence for that, but genetic is almost always has something to do with characters that differ significantly across populations. One tendency can be traced: in any country where some people live in northern parts, and some in southern, nordic people like more bland foods, and southern people more spiced ones.

  73. LS Says:

    To some westerners, a lot of Japanese cooking is hit or miss. (I love it all personally.)
    Next time, try yakitori.
    Can’t go wrong with grilled meat on a stick.

  74. waltj Says:

    you reminded me of a very old joke, “the difference between emigration and tourism”.

    And that would be…? It may be old, and I’m not exactly a spring chicken, but I seem to have missed this one. Please enlighten me (and the rest of us that might not have heard it).

  75. Tatyana Says:


    here it is (one of variations)

    A man dies and gets to heaven. Angels’ choirs, hymns,&&&. Time passes, nothing new happens, he gets bored. Once, there is an invitation to visit hell. He’s escorted there with big pomp, met with fanfare, entertained, dined and wined, provided all kinds of service and pleasure. He gets back to heaven very impressed.
    Time passes, and he gets bored. He decides to leave heaven and to move to hell forever. But when he enters it this time, he’s thrown into pot with boiling tar, tortured and tormented. “Why?” cries the unfortunate. “It was so great last time I was here.”

    “That was tourism, and now – immigration!”

  76. waltj Says:

    Ah. Got it. I did hear a version of this before, but it was a job applicant vs. staff. There’s a lot to like about many third-world places, to include Indonesia. Nice people, good cuisine, relatively low prices on many things. But there’s a reason they’re third-world. Corruption is probably the number-one reason, with most other reasons a function of that. The infrastructure is inadequate and crumbling because the foreign investment money to improve it disappeared into someone’s Swiss bank account. The rain forest’s trees are being harvested illegally because a politician sold logging permits to one of his buddies. The kids drop out of school because their parents can’t afford to buy the textbooks that are supposed to be free, but that the teachers are selling anyways. Criminals walk Scot-free because a lawyer hands a judge a brown envelope stuffed with cash. And so on.

  77. Tatyana Says:

    Walt – see this post @Isegoria.

  78. waltj Says:

    Tatyana: sounds like a good read. I’ll have to get it,

  79. Sol Says:

    Enjoyed you comments. Hey, there’s even a podcast about natto (“The Japanofiles”, Episode #28):


  80. Sydney Says:

    I can understand why you would not want to try Natto since it is something a lot of Americans probably would not try, but how can you knock it so much if you’ve never even tried it? If more Americans ate like the Japanese we would all be in so much better health. That’s why I like Natto for the health benefits and I love the blue cheese flavor.

  81. Q Says:

    Natto is one of my favorite foods. I understand why people would not like it, and I know most people don’t. The thing is, most of those “real” Asian traditional staple foods are yucky to most westerners.

    I know there are plenty pricy so called authentic Asian restaurants, especially in the New York city, but I am yet to find to a great one that captures the authenticity of asian foods and taste superb. They are mostly “okay” and taste close enough, but they aren’t just the same.

    I’ve been to China, Japan, and Korea, and actually I find authentic Chinese cuisine hardest to enjoy. You should have in mind that Chinese cuisine has undergone most severe westernization. Even those served in high-end Chinese restaurants are nothing like what Chinese people eat.

    Asian foods in general are very hard to enjoy for westerners. Period. I know this since I’m Asian-American and most of my friends don’t enjoy them, the real Asian foods I mean.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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