The surge in popularity of fermented food — eating it, creating it at home, exploring different cultures and cuisines — is based largely on the idea that this stuff can be really good for you.
In today’s filtered, purified, sanitized, antibacterial world, you might think avoiding bacteria of any kind is a good thing. Turns out, plenty of bacteria, invisible to the naked eye, are plastered all over our food and working on our behalf.
Yes, that food you forgot was in the back of your fridge is fermenting, but not in a good way. Healthy fermentation requires a lot of care and control, but it’s very doable.
Here’s how it generally works. Through a process called lacto- fermentation, bacteria found in our natural environment feed on sugars and starches in a process that creates health-promoting enzymes, an array of probiotics and much more.
But lest you think this is about to be a health lecture instead of a celebration of food and flavor, you should know that fermented food is anything but drudgery or sacrifice. While picky eaters might find some dishes challenging at first, fermented foods include chocolate, coffee and sourdough bread made with a starter teeming with lactobacillus. It’s all kinds of things you already love.
“With chocolate, many people don’t even realize that it’s a fermented food,” said Ramon Perez, owner of Puur Chocolat, based in Sacramento, Calif. “It’s basically the cacao fruit that goes through a fermentation process. It has this beautiful high water and sugar content that make a beautiful environment for these micro-organisms to grow and culture.”
Perez, who regularly travels the world in pursuit of new flavors and food experiences, has visited many cacao fermentation rooms. He said those sensory experiences make clear how crucial the fermentation process is to the chocolate we know and love.
“If it’s your first time to a fermentation room, it’s pretty pungent,” Perez said. “It’s intense. The funny part is, as you spend some time there, all of a sudden you become familiar with that smell, and the familiar smell of cacao comes to you. That’s the unique part — once you get past that funkiness, the chocolate smell is there.”
Byong Joo Yu, the upbeat owner of Koreana Plaza in Rancho Cordova, Calif., said fermented food is a major part of Korean cuisine and a key reason why Asian people tend to be slimmer and live longer than Americans.
“The scientists started to study different cultures that live longer and look younger,” Yu said. “The biggest difference is fermented foods. Also, Americans eat more meat.”
Randy and Christina Kautz began fermenting their own food early in 2016 and have seen significant health improvements since.
“We kept hearing about healing your gut. One of the ways to do that is fermented food,” said Christina Kautz. “I dove in and I did it.”
She makes an easy kim chee with Napa cabbage (won bok). “You chop everything up, you massage a little salt into it, and I just cover the bowl and let it sit for a few days.”
Bacteria grows. The aroma becomes pungent. For the uninitiated, things start to get a little weird.
Yes, the couple admit to being a little apprehensive to taste the first batch. “Now we don’t like to go a day without it,” she said.
“It’s a staple for breakfast,” added Randy, who likes to have eggs, avocado, tomatoes and kim chee or sauerkraut to start his day.
“I don’t know if I have a healthier gut, but I feel a hundred percent better than I used to,” he said. “I have a ton more energy, and I’m a lot more alert.”
Kim Chee Noodle Salad
Adapted from “Forks Over Knives: The Cookbook,” by Del Sroufe (2012, The Experiment)
- 1 pound rice noodles, cooked according to package directions, drained and rinsed until cool (brown rice noodles preferred)
- 2-1/2 cups chopped cabbage kim chee
- 3 to 4 tablespoons kochujang (Korean chili sauce, available at Asian markets)
- 1 cup mung bean sprouts
- 4 green onions (white and green parts), thinly sliced
- 1 medium cucumber, halved, seeded and thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
Place noodles, kim chee, kochujang and mung bean sprouts in a large bowl and mix well. To serve, divide the mixture among 4 plates and garnish each with green onions, cucumber and sesame seeds. Serves 4.
Nutritional information unavailable.