Fermented foods see revival in popularity
Special to The Union
Since the 1970s, trained microbiologist and nutrition teacher Shan Kendall has made kimchi, a traditional spicy Korean fermented condiment, in her home kitchen.
She’s still at it — fermenting foods with more vigor than ever, regularly preserving vegetables from the garden into sauerkraut and pickles, while crafting herbs, roots and berries into root beers and fruit kvass and transforming dairy products into cheese and yogurt.
For the past seven years, Kendall has taught a series of classes devoted to the health benefits of nutrient-dense foods, including the gut-restoring power of probiotics found in fermented foods.
“The whole idea that food can be your medicine and medicine can be your food is becoming extremely popular,” Kendall said.
At local natural food and supply stores, an interest in live, unpasteurized fermented foods is on the rise as a growing number of followers tout the healing powers of micro bacteria.
At A to Z Supply, a local hardware store, senior clerk Jessica Poitz regularly sells ceramic crocks, ranging in size from one to 25 gallons to folks who want to make their own sauerkraut and pickles.
“We have customers every day coming in. They remember their mothers doing it,” Poitz said.
At BriarPatch Co-op, kombucha – a traditional Chinese fermented tea made with a live “mother” culture – is regularly cleaned off the shelves. Kombucha is a symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast or SCOBY.
In the last month, the co-op has sold 5,617 bottles of kombucha, said John Bivens, assistant manager of the store’s perishables department.
“It’s extremely popular. Some people swear by it,” Bivens said.
Used as an energy drink and digestive aid, kombucha tea is also easily made at home. BriarPatch sells six brands and two varieties of the bottled beverage along with starter kits for home preparation.
Besides kombucha, BriarPatch sells about 500 units of sauerkraut each month, Bivens said.
Later this week, store managers hope to install a “fermentation station” where home fermenters can pick up cheese-making products, kefir products and even ingredients for making tofu at home.
“Many people at home are doing it on their own,” said Kendall.
Following basic food preservation principles used for centuries by cultures around the globe, Kendall and other fermenters know it takes just a few simple ingredients like salt, time and naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria or Lactobacilli and fungi (including yeasts and molds).
“Our forebears fermented everything,” Kendall said.
Sauerkraut is said to have 10 times the vitamin C as cabbage that is picked fresh from the garden. Captain Cook has been hailed as the conqueror of the sea’s great plague — scurvy — when he took the simple precaution of stocking his ships with barrels of sauerkraut before departing on long voyages.
Throughout history, many of the world’s cultures most valued and flavorful food staples were the ones achieved through some degree of fermentation. Think of wine, coffee, miso, sourdough bread, cheese and yogurt, pickles and sauerkraut. Even meats were often preserved with a little salt and the right climate conditions.
“There is this creative space between fresh food and rotten food where most of human culture’s most prized delicacies and culinary achievements exist,” said Sandor Katz, self proclaimed “fermentation revivalist” in a recent interview with NPR.
Katz is the author of the classic, “Wild Fermentation” and his newest book, “The Art of Fermentation.” He claims fermented foods have kept his body healthy and resilient in the face of AIDS. Many believe strongly in the disease-fighting abilities of fermented foods.
Yet despite its long celebrated history, fermented foods have nearly disappeared from the industrialized Western diet during the past century.
Kendall focuses on lacto-fermentation as opposed to alcohol-fermentation. The later is a process where yeast works on sugars and carbohydrates.
Lactobaccilli are naturally occurring bacteria that work to break down carbohydrates, proteins and various things like casein in milk. They are found on the surface of all living things, especially numerous on leaves and roots of plants growing in or near the ground.
This initial breakdown makes it easier for the human digestive system to break down food, absorb nutrients and protect the body from harmful substances.
Lactic acid is a byproduct of lacto-fermentation, and serves as a powerful agent to preserve food and inhibit putrefying bacteria.
“It’s nature’s preservative. That’s what people used before they had refrigeration,” Kendall said.
Eating foods that contain these probiotics helps to foster a good balance of “micro flora in our gut,” says Kendall. When the digestive system is healthy, the rest of the body’s systems such as the skin, mouth and other orifices tend to regain proper balance, as well.
Fermented foods will last for months and often need only a cool place such as a root cellar to keep. Lacto-fermentation and dehydrating foods can preserve nutrients and in some cases, increase vitamins, fermenters say.
In contrast, canning with high heat or freezing can destroy molecules, reducing the nutrient value of food, said Kendall.
In her current food preparation series, Kendall explores vegetable ferments like sauerkraut, kimchi, beet kvass, berry and apple kvass and dairy culturing products like: yogurt, kefir, crème fraiche, cultured butter and buttermilk.
Kendall bases her popular classes on the teachings of “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon and “Gut and Psychology Syndrome” by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride MD. She will hold her next series in January at In the Kitchen in Nevada City.
Home preservation requires some extra time, but with a little forethought can easily be worked into most people’s busy lives.
“I tell people you have a calendar where you schedule appointments. Do the same with food preparation,” Kendall said.
Contact freelance writer Laura Brown at 401-4877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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