West Eats East
J-Foods You Can’t Eat
Natto, Umeboshi and Konnyaku—these are three J-foods that most Americans cannot eat or do not like to eat. Though, these are just common items that all J-people do not mind or rather they often recognize them as healthy to eat. What are these? Are they good? Yes, they would be if we learned more about them.
Natto: Fermented soybeans by Bacillus natto bacteria. Two things for being disliked. First, the smell is similar to the one of well-aged cheese like Limburger, Brick or over-ripenned or forgotten sharp Cheddar. As a fermented food, though, it may not be so bad, I think. Second, its sticky nature. Natto produces very sticky, semi-transparent, very fine fiber-like spider thread when you mix with soy sauce. The sticky stuff follows wherever you place your chopsticks as if it tangles you in a spider web. Yuck! A similar stickiness may come from chopped okura but such a stickiness and smell combo makes most of us no-thanking for natto. However, recent medical research has shown this sticky matter, which is a mucus, microbial mycelium, contains a blood clot dissolving enzyme, nattokinase. This enzyme preparation is used for the treatment of blood clogs as well as for the prevention of blood clotting. Many Japanese put a trust on natto by believing that natto makes blood more free flowing. Once such news broke out here, a health-conscious mainstreamer rushed to a J-food store in Menlo Park, CA for natto. Sorry to say, he came back on the following day to return it because he could not stand its smell and stickiness, a store owner told me. To make natto more acceptable in our market, I tried to develop a freeze-dried natto powder, which can be used for pouring over pasta dishes or adding meaty flavor in vegetarian formulations. Even a natto energy bar, I created in a test run. All of them were good but too early for the successful business development yet then. An easy way for you to try natto is natto maki sushi. I hope you would not have a strong objection. Another fermented soybean, “Tempe” is from Indonesia by fungi microbes likely with not as much functionality as natto.
Umeboshi: Picked plums with a Perilla red shiso. It is extremely sour, salty, and good for eating with plain cooked rice. Most Japanese would secrete saliva when hearing the term, umeboshi, almost like Pavlov’s conditioned reflex with dogs. Outside of the rice eating culture, such very sour, salty stuff does not exist, which may be the reason why umeboshi is not liked. Umeboshi is made as follows: picking up rightly ripened Japanese plums not sweet, pickling in salt and later with red shiso, drying under sunshine and preserving under cool and dark, ambient conditions. Every Japanese household used to make umeboshi in its own recipe as a dietary necessity. The recipe was handed down through generations. If a son’s bride could not make good umeboshi, she would be disqualified as a housewife. Today, however, it is hard to find such an authentic, traditional one. That is not due to lack of good housewives but apparently changes in salt intake attitudes. Lowering salt intake is a must to keep blood pressure within an adequate level. From 15g a day to less than 10g is often recommended. Umeboshi is likely public enemy number one, almost. A low salt umeboshi then becomes our option. Umeboshi has transferred from the home-made traditional to the commercial mass-produced low salt item with food additives, artificial colorant, often honey or sugar, and less or no red shiso for compensating the lower salt taste. That is not my choice. My wife makes the traditional one with the plum fruits harvested in my backyard in the Central Valley, CA, a macrobiotic sea salt from a small Pacific Ocean island, red shiso grown in my garden, and bright California sunshine, and stored in a refrigerator. A good wife who makes good umeboshi, mostly for giving away!
Konnyaku or Konjak mannan: It has a rubbery texture, and is a grey-black or white, often rectangular shaped food. Probably found only in the Asian markets, it is used for cooking with vegetables, tofu, fish surimi products and chicken. Also a Konnyaku strip skewed on a bamboo stick can be BBQ. A miso sauce can be applied over it while barbequing. It is good for filling stomach with least calories, and is a good dietary item. Without much appreciation of its nutritional value, Japanese enjoyed its rubbery mouthfeel to chew almost like black rubber tires. Konjak mannan is a food-configured mannan root vegetable with alkaline nature stuff like plant ash. This root vegetable is a crop at poor fertile hillsides where not many edible plants grow. Dried mannan powder has a somewhat different functionality in food formulations and has not been successfully promoted in our food industry yet. As reported in the last issue about tofu, however, it appears to be finally coming out of a dark tunnel to get good attention as a dietary ingredient or food like tofu-mannan noodles. Again it would be more used if its cooking or recipe information becomes available. Now can you eat natto, umeboshi or konnyaku for good?