In addition to being delicious, fermented foods and drinks have historical importance spanning global cultures, found in abundance in traditional cuisines. The earliest existing records of fermentation date back to 6000BCE, in the area known as the Fertile Crescent. Although the discovery may have been accidental, fermentation became one of the most important food preservation techniques, and a way to prevent microbial infection.
While the list of foods that can be fermented is almost endless and includes dairy, leavened breads, vegetables, fruits and even some meats, the number of microorganisms used to spark the process is relatively small. A handful of mold, yeast and bacteria species (lactobacillus being the most widespread), all of which belong to the Fungi Kingdom, are responsible for consuming starches and sugars and turning them into acids or alcohol that preserve the food or beverage. The addition of one of these agents to a food source (either solid or liquid) catalyzes the fermentation process and creates a “living” food or beverage, such as beer, wine, Kombucha, sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, chutney, kimchi, etc.
Modern science is beginning to understand how consuming fermented foods may benefit health, both through chemical alteration of the food pre-consumption and subsequent integration of the beneficial microbes into intestinal flora. It’s an exciting area of research, some of which owes its foundation to exploration into traditional diets and high health levels of traditional cultures (see the large body of work on this subject by Dr. Westin A Price). We now know that the connection between beneficial bacteria and intestinal health may have implications in healing inflammatory and autoimmune disorders. Fermented foods and drinks have seen a huge resurgence in the US in recent decades with the rise of cottage food industries, integrative nutrition and DIY food preparation. If you have health concerns, consult your healthcare practitioner before consuming fermented foods.The same microorganisms that preserve fermented foods can also cause them to spoil if the fermentation process goes awry, so DIY fermentation should be undertaken with attention and care. The process can be somewhat unpredictable, and a clean working environment and supplies are essential. The word ferment means a commotion or excitement, descriptions that are apt for everything from the bacterial-level feeding frenzy, to the unpredictable nature of the process, to the zingy fizz and tangy taste of the foods themselves. Below are five fantastic fermented foods and drinks to try.
Kombucha is an effervescent drink made from a SCOBY (an acronym for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast), which is a slimy, blobby, vaguely alien-looking disc that feeds on black tea and sugar. Although the sight of a SCOBY may be enough to make you run in the opposite direction, the drink it produces is usually deliciously sweet with a slight vinegary kick that has plenty of people hooked. Jun is a similar beverage that’s traditionally made with green tea and honey. Kombucha originated in Ancient China, touted as a health and longevity tonic. Its brewing time is 5-8 days, and many commercial kombucha brands add additional flavors such as fruit juices and herbal teas. Kombucha does contain approximately .5% alcohol (.005), and some sugar and caffeine remain in the drink after fermentation.
Kvass is an acidic, bubbly drink originating in Russia, made from rye bread and brewer’s or baker’s yeast or live Lactobacillus culture. Traditional kvass was historically made without starters by letting stale rye bread soak in water for several days, relying on wild fermentation. The entire contents of the vat would be consumed, with the added benefit making the water potable, giving it the utmost utilitarian value. Kvass has a quick fermentation time and a slightly higher alcohol content than kombucha, ranging from 1-5% (.001-.005). Other ingredients, such as herbs and fruit, are often added to give the drink a signature flare. A popular modern twist is made with beets rather than rye bread, giving it a lower alcohol content, a deep scarlet hue and earthy taste.
Kefir is a thick, fermented milk hailing from Northern Russia. It has a very fast fermentation time (starting at 24 hours) and is made by adding kefir grains (a mix of yeast and bacteria strains) to milk. The legend of the origin of kefir grains is that they were given to Caucasus Mountain-dwelling Orthodox Russians by the prophet Mohammed, and passed down in secret from generation to generation. Kefir’s rumored success in the treatment of tuberculosis and intestinal diseases made it a sought-after remedy and it was eventually brought to Moscow and made available for sale to the public. It tastes similar to yogurt but can be stronger and more effervescent in flavor, and is sold both plain and flavored with fruit and sugar.
Tempeh is a traditional fermented soy product from Indonesia, made with cooked soybeans and mold spores. This may sound gag-inducing, but the finished product is tastily nutty, well-textured, and a great source of protein for vegetarians and omnivores alike. It’s high in calcium, iron, magnesium and other minerals. Today, tempeh is also made with chickpeas, black eyed peas and even grains such as barley and millet. It can be added to soups, stews or chili, or served as a main dish in a sauce or marinade.
Kimchi is a spicy fermented cabbage that’s served as a condiment with almost every meal in Korea. Its base is Napa cabbage, which is combined with fresh garlic, ginger, scallions, Korean radish, Korean chili powder, Korean salted shrimp, salt, sesame oil and sesame seeds. The mix is either lacto-fermented or wild fermented for up to several weeks. Kimchi, like many other traditional fermented vegetable slaws, is high on the spice scale and not for the faint of heart, but has a very distinct, bold and delicious flavor. Adventurous foodies will enjoy making this at home, but it can also be purchased at any Asian market and in many grocery stores.
Further reading on the health benefits of fermented food
Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon