Lately I’ve become interested in fermented food products, probably a result of being surrounded by hundreds of kinds of kimchi and also learning how my friend, Hiromi, makes her own miso.
The earliest record of fermentation dates back as far as 6000 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent—and nearly every civilization since has included at least one fermented food in its culinary heritage. From Korean kimchi and Indian chutneys to sauerkraut, yogurt and cheese, around the globe cultures have crafted unique flavors and traditions around fermentation to avoid spoilage in times of abundance, so it could be savoured in times of famine.
Traditional lacto-fermentation utilizes the microflora present on vegetables and a lactic acid bacteria starter culture. However, in large-scale food manufacturing practices, vegetables are washed in diluted chlorine solutions to destroy or inactivate existing microflora, and acetic acid (which, along with water, is a main component of vinegar) is used instead of lactic acid. Of the few commercially available pickles that are lacto-fermented, most are heat processed or pasteurized to create a sterile product. Others are “desalted” or rinsed, likely removing any beneficial bacteria that may have been present.
More incentive to make your own kimchi or fermented products.
The health benefits of fermented products are quite impressive; restoring balance to the levels of proper bacteria in the digestive tract, cleaning the body of antibiotics and reducing acidic levels, the good bacterias help fight off pathogenic microorganisms (ie: viruses), improves the immune system and metabolism as well as boosting overall energy levels.
However, most importantly, fermented foods = full on intense flavour! Think of the strong flavours of sauerkraut, kimchi and umeboshi plums.
A rundown of common fermented foods:
Kimchi is a traditional Korean lactofermented condiment made of cabbage and other vegetables and seasoned with
salt, garlic, ginger and chili peppers. Most Asian diets include a daily portion of some kind of pickled vegetable. Lacto-fermentation occurs when sugars and starches are converted to lactic acid by the lactobacilli that are prevalent in vegetables and fruits. The proliferation of lactobacilli in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and increases vitamin levels.
Kombucha is a culture of symbiotic beneficial bacteria and yeasts which originated in China nearly 2,000 years ago. This culture is brewed with tea and sugar and fermented into a sweet and sour, slightly effervescent drink. Kombucha contains many amino acids and B vitamins in addition to its bountiful population of beneficial microorganisms, and is believed to be an excellent stimulant to digestion and the immune system.
Miso is made by adding an enzymatic culture to a base of soybeans and, often, a grain (usually wheat, barley, or rice). Salt and water are the only other ingredients of natural miso. Through aging, the enzymes reduce the proteins, starches, and fats into amino acids, simple sugars and fatty acids. It also contains lactobacillus bacteria which aid in digestion. Miso is used as a soup base but is also good in sauces, gravies, dips, spreads, dressings and marinades. Always use unpasteurized miso, and don’t boil it; high temperatures will kill the beneficial microorganisms. Miso is a superb source of easily-assimilated complete protein.
Sauerkraut is a cabbage that has been salted and lacto-fermented over a period of weeks. Latin American cultures make a version of sauerkraut called cortido. The beneficial bacteria so abundant in sauerkraut produce numerous helpful enzymes as well as antibiotic and anti-carcinogenic substances. The main by-product, lactic acid, not only keeps vegetables and fruits in a state of preservation but also promotes the growth of healthy flora through out the intestine.
Umeboshi are salty sour lacto-fermented pickled plums (ume) from Japan. Umeboshi are highly alkaline and used to neutralize fatigue, stimulate the digestive system and promote the elimination of toxins. They are valued for their natural antibiotic properties and ability to regulate intestinal health.
Sourdough is a bread product made by a long fermentation of dough using naturally occurring yeasts and lactobacilli.
Tempeh is an ancient Indonesian staple made from cooked, split, fermented soybeans bound together with a mold that makes soy easier to digest and provides many valuable vitamins. Tempeh is an excellent protein source for calcium and iron, and the mold produces an antibiotic to increase the body’s resistance to infections.
A wide range of vegetables (and sometimes fruits, nuts, seeds, animal products and other ingredients) can be lactofermented using salt, temperature and a controlled environment for a period of time to make pickles. Most modern pickles, however, are made using vinegars and/or heat processing, which limits or eliminates the beneficial bacteria and enzymes that result from lacto-fermentation; check the label to ensure pickles are fermented.
Yogurt & Kefir
Yogurt and kefir consist of milk that has been inoculated with live bacterial cultures. These cultures convert the milk’s lactose sugar into lactic acid. For people who have difficulty digesting the lactose in milk, cultured dairy products may be easier to digest because the live, active cultures produce lactase, which pre-digests the lactose.
So, the above is yogurt kefir. Kee-fur. Like Kiefer Sutherland. Y’know, that dude from 24, Melancholia?? He was the bully in Stand By Me…
Anyway. Being partial to all things dairy, and the ridiculous amount of sugar in those tiny bottles of probitotics that this one ajumma near my busstop always tries to push on me (I’m a pusher Cady), some late night researching led me to water kefir.
Water kefir, scientifically known as tibicos, is similar to yogurt kefir, except instead of feeding off the milk lactose, it feeds off sugar lactose. Now, I know this sounds like it seemingly contradicts what I said above about trying to avoid sugary probiotic drinks, however, the kefir crystals eat up most of the sugar, which is only 2 tablespoons to 3 cups of water. The resulting brew is definitly not sweet.
So what exactly is it?
Basically, it’s a bacterial yeast culture (mmm…sounds delicious) that looks like bath crystals. When added to mineral water mixed with sugar, the kefir grains eat the sugar producing strains of probiotic bacteria which carbonates the brew. If brewed correctly and in a stable environment, the grains will also multiply – allowing you to share the kefir love around.
I got my grains online from savvy teas, and if all goes well, I’m more than happy to share 😀
Once you’ve got the grains it’s so easy to make:
Water Kefir grains (2tsp dried grains or 1/3 cup wet grains)
3 cups mineral water (if using tap water, boil or set out overnight to remove/evaporate chlorine)
2 tbsp organic brown sugar
1/2 lemon – sliced
handful of raisins, banana, berries (encourages fermentation)
1. Place the grains, sugar, water and fruit in a sterilised glass jar with either a screw top or flip top lid.
2. Place in an area out of direct sunlight. Some suggest wrapping in towels or ‘burping’ the jar every now and then as the carbonation can build up and lead to some horror glass smashing stories. Also, avoid the use of metal spoons (pure stainless steel is ok) as this will affect the sensitive little grains.
Stay tuned for the next update: the second brew – experimenting with flavours!!