The current Covid crisis has brought to the fore many health and wellness priorities, not least among them the importance of fermented foods for maintaining strong gut health.
Yet, fermentation itself is nothing new. Lacto-fermented achaars (pickles) have long since been a staple of our Indian diet, adding a healthy kick of flavours to each meal from sweet-and-sour to spicy and tangy. In fact, as I mused in my column for The Indian Express, it’s this heady quest for more robust, well-bodied flavours that has furthered experimentations with fermentation across cultures, cuisines and decades!
From kimchi and kombucha to sauerkraut and sourdough, I recently caught up with Laura Christie Khanna – avid fermenter and co-founder of the urban permaculture farm The Odd Gumnut– on the fascinating topic and easy home ferments, including how to brew your own all-natural ginger soda…
Remind me again:
Why exactly do we ferment things?
Fermentation has been critical to human survival throughout history, given its power to transform food through living yeasts and bacteria, either to preserve it or to glean out its nutrition.
A cabbage harvest that would only stay fresh for up to two weeks is fermented (with just salt!) into sauerkraut, sustaining cold-weather populations with the necessary vitamin C to survive winters with frozen farmlands.
Dissolving anti-nutrients – the phytic acid found in all grains, seeds and nuts – is the second reason we ferment. Fermented foods help us to ‘predigest’ grains crops, thus enabling us to better uptake vitamins and minerals.
And of course, we ferment foods because they taste good! Something ordinary becomes extraordinary and lights up our taste buds! Fermentation can transform basic meals to umami-rich gourmet experiences. Could you imagine life without cheese, chocolate, coffee, tea and beer?
From Kimchi to Sauerkraut:
How does fermentation vary across cultures and cuisines?
Food is the expression of our cultural identities; it bonds us to the land and yokes us to the seasons!
There is not a corner of the world that doesn’t ferment. The Inuit people of the Arctic fermented fish and walrus meat caught in the summer to ensure winter survival; Italians famously ferment salami and cheese and olives for preservation and flavor; Sudanese ferment sorghum (jowar) in many ways to maximize its nutritional benefit, and on and on!
There are endless ways to ferment endless things – the variation across cultures is a reflection of all the unique factors that create a place: weather, water, plant and animal varieties, seasons and temperatures. Like many mainstays of culture, different fermentation styles were likely born from need & necessity and later evolved into rich cultural land-based identity.
Is Sourdough a ferment?
A sourdough starter, simply water and flour, becomes a ‘hotel’ for the wild yeast in the air to check in to.
Each starter will have its own unique make up because of the variation in local yeast populations – San Francisco has its’ favourably tasting marine yeast strains to thank for its worldwide sourdough fame!
Yeast and lactic acid work in tandem to pre-digest the phytic acid and glutens present in the wheat, this important work makes sourdough bread digestible and genuinely nourishing for our whole body.
OK, let’s get started.
What are your tips for easy home ferments?
The easiest place to start is simple lactic acid vegetable ferments, you can really impress your friends and family with these tangy condiments on the table.
My summer favourites, however, are homemade all-natural sodas! They’re completely customisable – choose your sweetener (honey, jaggery, sugar etc), your level of sweetness, and your flavour, which can range from watermelon to lemongrass or any other botanical. Even simple vanilla extract transforms into cream soda.
The key here is that you need a ‘mother culture’ to kick off and guide fermentation. You can use whey from a raw milk yogurt ferment, but the easiest to start a ‘ginger bug’, harnessing the natural yeast present on ginger skins.
To make a ginger bug, take a glass jar and fill it part way with water. Every day, add a little fresh grated ginger, with the skin, and a little sugar. Don’t stress on the measurements, just think about a tsp. each. Give your bug a very good stir. Keep stirring and feeding and after 3-4 days you will have something bubbly and active and ready for soda-making!
Flavour and sweeten your water base however you like and add the ginger bug, working the whole time at room temperature. You will need about a ¼ ginger bug per liter of soda you’re fermenting. Leave your mixture to ferment for 1-2 days, stirring occasionally and covered with a cloth lid, and then bottle it in pop-top bottles. Leave those bottles to pressurize (carbonate) over another 1-2 days, then move the fridge to chill and enjoy! So much fun for whole family.