Masatoshi Tsujimura looks across the counter of his North Raleigh sushi institution, Waraji, and smiles knowingly, as though he's intuited a secret.
"You've never been here before, have you?" Tsujimura asks, guessing correctly.
"Well, have you ever had nattō?" he continues, glancing down at the thin white strip on which I've ordered nearly every vegetarian sushi roll his restaurant offers—cucumber and plum, seasoned kelp salad, pickled radish, avocado, egg, Japanese pickle, tofu skin and, finally, fermented soybeans, or nattō, the Marmite equivalent of Japan.
When I shake my head, Tsujimura frowns, not out of disappointment but out of concern for my well-being. He reaches beneath the corner and pulls out a clear plastic tube, no bigger than a pouch of cake frosting, and squeezes the end until a pale brown mound forms in an alabaster saucer. He quickly wipes his hands, daintily grabs the dish by its edges and swiftly extends his arm across the counter. He leans back, distancing his nose from the dish.
"Here, I'll let you try a little bit," he says, his face now expressionless, as though to tell me he really means it. "And if you like it, I'll make it for you."
And then he walks away.
Fermented soybeans resemble over-boiled pinto beans that have been allowed to dehydrate in the summer sun, shriveling to a quarter of their size until they curl inward as if in shame. The beans, however little, produce a big smell, like a mixture of ammonia and sulfur simmering on a stovetop. And the beans hang together with translucent, gelatinous threads, as thin as spider web but twice as strange; pluck one away from the rest, as I did not long after Tsujimura stepped away, and you'll have to lift and pull for a few feet until the strand finally snaps.
But it does, and I eat one, two, then three. When Tsujimura finally returns, he looks at the quarter-empty dish and agrees to go ahead with the order. Though he was born in a fishing village in Japan, where nattō is something of a superfood, and has been making sushi in America since 1982 and at Waraji since opening the place in 1997, Tsujimura admits he has never eaten nattō, not even gotten it past his nose.
But I have passed his test, and he will roll it. Hey, if I'm going to try Waraji's vegetarian sushi options, I might as well try them all.