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Tuesday, March 23, 2004

THE ZEIT GIST

Taste: the final frontier

The Japanese may dress, live and make love in various degrees of western approximation, but the issue of taste remains a gaping cultural chasm

By Kaori Shoji Now that Japanese food is like, totally in all over the globe, chances are that you (a Westerner) will not be grossed out by the smell of roasting sanma or the sight of dried eel kidney floating in clear soup.

Chance are, you'll even profess to prefer these over the high-cholesterol, high-carb foods back home.

All the same, the foreigner who can eat a "ikezukuri (sashimi eaten from the fish while it's still alive)" with genuine relish will likely as not run for cover at the mere mention of "wagashi (Japanese confectionaries)."

My friend Seth, for example, eyes every round-shaped bun displayed on bakery shelves with unbridled suspicion and animosity: "Is there a dose of anko in that thing?"

He holds that the worst taste combination in the world has got to be "anko" (sweet bean paste) and bread as in "an-pan," followed by anko and donut, as in "an-donattsu."

As for other anko renditions like manju, he refuses to approach them unless protected by goggles and a rain coat. (And if you really want to freak him out, show up at his door with a hefty box of "amanatto" which are boiled, dried beans coated in sugar)

"Beans should not be sweet, damn it!" says Seth, who bemoans the lack of Krispy Kreme donuts in Tokyo and declares that the Japanese are totally weird in their stance to pastries. "The cakes here have no taste. What's wrong with you guys?"

Of course the Japanese abroad complain of the teeth-splintering sweetness of cakes and chocolates. They crave to stick their forks into some nice beans and nix those annoying truffles. This difference in taste buds feels like the final frontier in cultural distinction.

Now that the Japanese dress, choose dwellings, crack jokes, shake hands and make love in various degrees of western approximation, the issue of taste remains a gaping cultural chasm.

In matters of what tastes good (or not), the Western visitor and the Japanese local continue to be at odds, unable to understand.

Admittedly, items on the Japanese menu can include high levels of strangeness.

There is for example, our fondness for mixing/matching carbohydrates. Consider our favorite lunchtime treats -- the "yakisoba-pan" (pan-fried, worcester-sauce flavored noodles in a hot dog bun) or "napolitan-pan" (pan-fried, ketchup-flavored spaghetti in a hot dog bun), not to mention the "potesara-sando" (mayo-flavored mashed potato sandwich).

Pizza covered in mayonnaise anyone?

In an age when diet doctors are exhorting us to eliminate carbs altogether, we're constantly thinking up ways to get more carb from a single bite.

And what about our talent for messing up eggs? The "tamagoyaki" (fried egg squares) are as sweet as any pastry but at the same time can hardly be called dessert. We're not exactly sure how to catalog these ourselves but 9 out of 10 Japanese profess to love it.

Tamagoyaki is that yellow sliver you'll see nestled against the rice in a bento box or residing atop sushi. Many an American friend has said this is the one item that cannot abide.

We're also notoriously bad at making omelets. Not only do many of us insist on tossing a bit of soy sauce and sugar into the eggs, we also like to stick tofu cubes and ground meat, yakisoba, ketchup-flavored rice or in some extreme cases, all of the above.

And I hate to be the one to break the news but one of the most popular izakaya dishes is the "natto omelet."

Ah, the natto (fermented soy beans). Personally, I'm always suspicious when someone from Texas or Sheffield rhapsodizes about how they love it and can't live without it. Are they being excessively polite or did they get a lobotomy? Even a huge chunk of the Japanese populace can't stand natto and recoil instantly from its particular odor of rotting socks.

It's in the northeastern regions (namely Kanto) that natto is eaten with regularity -- the further south you go, the less likely the chance of running into natto-lovers. But for die-hard fans, its smell, texture and assault on the visual senses all testify to the deep and perverse, Japanese fascination with the fermentation process.

Slow food? Hah! Natto is so slow as to be catatonic, so slow that it leaves a glistening trail of stinky stickiness covering the distance between one's chopsticks and mouth. So slow in fact, that the aftertaste can last up to a full eight hours or more. True, defumigated natto and dried natto beans in sterile plastic bags have become available but those are for wimps and traitors.

And let's not forget natto's health and beauty effects -- detoxing the body, feeding skin molecules and battling cholesterol, singlehandedly. It's no secret that models habitually eat natto to maintain their physique and a famed porn actress claimed her favorite meal consisted of a bottle of Merlot and a bowl of natto.

Tell that to Brillat-Savarin.

So many women put their faith in the cure-all, all-you-need benefits of natto that it has been known to trigger some bizarre gastronomic behavior.

One young woman I know breakfasts off natto on buttered toast, saying that it gives her all she needs by way of nutrition besides costing just 60 yen a day.

For dinner, she often has natto on pasta, dousing the whole thing with mayo and soy sauce. She insists that both these dishes are quite tasty and that she is by no means the only one who enjoys them.

A girlfriend of mine who couldn't be bothered with cooking or washing up, devised a system to make natto-intake as quick and efficient as possible.

She would take equal portions of natto and rice, spread both on a sheet of plastic wrap then roll the whole thing to form a triangular, megaphone shape.

Then she would pound it lightly with her fist to let the contents mesh, tip it to her mouth and squeeze the paste-like concoction straight into her throat.

Elsewhere on different continents, women do similar things with cheeze-wiz or whipped cream or salsa sauce, according to preference. None can convince the others of how good it tastes.



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