Delving into the Intangibles

   The Alchemy of Fermentation  

Sushi is one of the best known foods of Japan, and for many Japanese gourmets natto-maki (fermented soybean roll) is a “must” as a closer after a parade of seafood- atop-vinegared rice…and, of course, many tipples of wonderful sake. But nearly all gaijin (foreigners) seem to show a great dislike for natto (fermented soybeans) because it is sticky, slimy, and for some, sickeningly stinky.

Our eyes cannot see the microbes essential for the production of “tangible” foods, so we are surprised to find how hard they’re working “intangibly” when they ooze in slime, sticking together in a straw wrapper.

One “Japan hand,” or “tongue” if I may, I’ve known for many years, is a rare exception to the rule. He is a Parisian and a doctor of fermentology. When I asked one time, at a sushi bar in Ginza, if he dislikes natto, he responded incredulously: “Mais non! C’est délicieux, le fromage de la terre! Une des merveilleuses nourritures du Japon, n’est-ce pas?” (No! It’s delicious, the cheese of the earth. One of the wonderful foods of Japan, isn’t it?)

Incidentally, I learned from a book by a Japanese scientist that natto bacteria can be found anywhere: for example, under the make-up of beautiful ladies––as many as three hundred million in number. But rest reassured, they are good for the skin, producing lots of B-group vitamins.

There are many fermented foods among the staples of Japan. In the refrigerator of any household, you are likely to find a store of miso (fermented soybean paste), shoyu (soy sauce), katsuobushi (dried bonito), su (vinegar), tsukemono (pickles), et cetera. They come in handy as preserved foodstuffs, rich in nutritional value, thanks to the activity of invisible microbes, i.e. the work of Intangible power.

I think fermentation is food’s answer to alchemy, transforming ordinary substances into far more useful and attractive ones on a totally different level. Humans are said to have used fermentation to produce beverages since the Neolithic Age.

I heard it’s even present sometimes in the stomachs of animals, including humans. That being the case, what would happen if it were to occur within the human mind? This highly unlikely idea tickles my fancy.

Would human relations become sweeter and gentler, like a vintage wine, or turn sour like vinegar?

A Japanese friend of mine made a very interesting observation: “Whereas Westerners are individualists, jumping up and down like popcorn in a popper, we Japanese, putting importance on giri (social obligation) and ninjo (human emotion), are like natto sticking together in a straw wrapper.”

Such “microbes” in human relations make the day-to-day lives of Japanese unique: sometimes appealing, but at other times prone to sentimentality and wet as the rainy season.

It might be a not-so-bad idea to become popcorn from time to time, n’est-ce pas?