“Can you give a shout out to anyone who wants to socialize with [Japan Society] for any mixers? We have the most eligible bachelors and bachelorettes on campus,” says Max F. Mondelli ’18, as he stirs a strong-smelling pile of beans in a styrofoam container.
Most of the people eating in the Quincy dining hall seem blissfully unaware of what is about to take place, although the distinct scent of natto, a Japanese dish consisting of fermented soybeans, seems to have caught the attention of a few wandering noses. I have arrived at Harvard Japan Society’s first-ever Natto Eating Contest, although the event is still in its preparation stages.
Members of JS have claimed a few tables in the back of the dining hall and are diligently mixing soy sauce into small containers of beans. I quickly realize that the viscous texture of natto is as distinct as its aroma; the stirring causes the beans to coagulate into amorphous masses.
“I feel like Spider Man,” Mondelli says. “It’s so sticky, like webs.”
When I ask a table of JS members if they would say that natto is an acquired taste, my question is met with a resounding yes. Foreign as it may be to the Western palette, I learn that natto is a staple of the Japanese diet. While some appreciate natto for its high protein content, others see natto as a memento of childhood—it holds nostalgic as well as nutritional value.
“I was a really skinny, short child. I was the smallest and skinniest in my class, and so after coming home I would crush like three of these natto things so I would get bigger every day,” says Hikari Senju ’15, a recent graduate of the College and non-residential tutor.
As the contest draws closer, the intensity of the scene heightens. The beans congeal, the aroma grows much, much stronger, and the thirst for victory becomes palpable. Japan Society President Melinda Wang ’16 announces the rules of the contest: Each contestant will receive four containers of natto (one container is usually a standard serving size), and the first to finish all four containers is the winner. There will be two rounds, and the winners of each will face off in a championship round. It will be a contest of speed rather than quantity, a test of determination, agility, and possibly even character.
“I’m a sprinter. I’m literally on the track team. So you guys are fucked,” Mondelli says. He has come dressed for the occasion, wearing his Harvard track singlet. “You know the band Dragonforce? You know ‘Through the Fire and Flames?’ That’s what you eat to,” he says, securing a pair of noise-canceling headphones over his ears before the competition begins.
“At this level, it’s about the love of the food. It’s about passion, not the level of athlete you are,” Senju responds. He shares his sophisticated eating strategy. “Open your gullet and just chug it.”
Senju and Mondelli, two of the four first-round contestants, are the most eager to vocalize their confidence. Their competitors are not quite so certain.
“I don’t think anyone’s going to win... I mean, I don’t want to win, if after this there are going to be any more rounds,” says Jaemin Cheun ’16, eyeing the seemingly endless rows of natto containers.
“I’ve never been this nervous in my life,” Shangyan Li ’18 says. “I took five midterms this past week and I’ve never been this nervous.” Wang, acting as the announcer for the event, declares that it is time to start. The contestants emphatically tear off their sweaters and roll up their sleeves. It is clear that this is going to be more than just a game.
Despite his nerves, Li proves to be the dark horse of the first round. His technique is unassuming yet graceful. He seamlessly sweeps through all four containers, holding the styrofoam boxes close to his face so it seems that the chopsticks never leave his mouth. Around him, tendrils of sticky natto residue hang from the mouths and chins of his competitors. One participant begins to choke, coughing a mouthful of beans back into his container before continuing. Despite their prior fiery enthusiasm, Senju and Mondelli are left in the dust, with a disheartening amount of beans in front of them. Li is announced the victor.
“I have dishonored my family,” Mondelli says solemnly as he waits for the second round to start.
The second round welcomes a new batch of contestants with a wide range of experience, from a rookie first-time natto eater to a veteran soybean powerhouse. Ryo Ishizuka ’16 seems to be the audience favorite, and with good reason: He wins the round quite easily, his performance characterized by tranquil efficiency and tempered dexterity.
Ishizuka and Li take a break to digest before the ultimate showdown. After about 15 minutes of stomach massaging and pep talks, they sit side by side, ready to give their best in the final round.
The reigning champions are racing neck and neck for the first two containers, speeding through the mounds of natto as if they haven’t already consumed four standard servings of it. They seem to defy the laws of physics and human anatomy as their chopsticks spin like helicopter propellers. Ultimately, Li takes the round with a surge in acceleration in the third box.
His unassuming nature remains despite his victory. Perhaps he is always a humble and magnanimous winner; perhaps the gravity of this feat has yet to dawn on him.
“I’m just having chest pain right now,” Li says.