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“Fermentation is trendy” may sound like an odd statement: whenever did an anaerobic oxidation process start to become trendy? And yet, you just have to stop and consider the latest King Midas of the food world, to realize that it is not so farfetched after all.
Mother dough. Kimchi. Tempeh. Natto, known to the boldest patrons of Japanese restaurants. Kombucha. Along with the fermented products belonging to our own culinary tradition – beer, wine, cheese and yogurt – we are now becoming familiar with some increasingly exotic specialties.
There is no longer any need, at least in the western world, to make recourse to fermentation in order to reduce the number of “harmful” bacteria and store food for as long as possible. Furthermore, all fermented foodstuffs have a more or less pronounced acidity which is an intrinsic part of the chemical transformation they undergo, an acidity that is always on the fine border line between “Hey, what an unusual and pleasant taste” and “I refuse to taste another forkful”.
fermented foods in asian cultures
So, why do we like fermented foods so much? It may be more than a mere physical-sensorial question. In various Asian cultures, fermentation has a powerful cultural significance and performs a social function within communities and families. Let’s take Khao Mak, for instance, an alcoholic dessert deriving from the fermentation of glutinous rice which is very popular in South East Asia where “it is called mother’s alcohol owing precisely to the fact that it is home-made”, explains Gai Lai Mitwichan.
The young Thai was one of the protagonists of a tasting lab on fermented foods held during the Indigenous Terra Madre event: an in-depth study on fermentation viewed from four different corners of the globe, in the myriad of forms – as well as flavours and aromas - it takes on in the culinary traditions of indigenous populations. Khao Mak is made from fermented sticky rice and yeast, which plays a fundamental role, since it has the power to completely change the taste of alcohol (rather like mother dough in bread-making).
makgeolli and kimchi, fermentation made in korea
The country in which alcoholic fermented products are most popular is certainly Korea, which in fact presented various specialities at the lab. The term Makgeolli indicates another fermented product made from rice (but also, and less commonly, other types of cereals) and yeast, often with the addition of flowers or medicinal herbs.
However, the most famous fermented product from Korea is kimchi: mixed vegetables (radish, garlic napa cabbages...) are arranged in breathing vases made of earthenware and left to ferment so that they may be consumed in the winter months when vegetables are in scarce supply.
Kimchi may be fermented from two weeks to one year (the acidity obviously increases exponentially) and is an authentic nutritional godsend, low in calories but packed with vitamins.
Fermented tea, the elisir of life
Generally speaking, fermentation – apart from the considerable advantage it offers in terms of preservation – produces highly nutritious foods, filling them with antioxidants and other beneficial probiotics but, above all, making them more digestible.
Another personage to go up on stage at ITM was Alpana Borpatragohain, an enterprising Indian lady who gave a talk on Passion Tea produced by the Singhpo tribe (whose history intersects that of Robert Bruce, “the father of Indian tea”). The tea leaves are fermented in the shape of “cakes” for periods that can vary from a few months to many years. Extraordinary nutritional values are also produced in this case (it is called “the elisir of life”) along with an unforgettable smoky flavour: it is practically impossible to find it on the market but it’s well worth betting that, if it were to arrive on our supermarket shelves, it would get snapped up in no time at all.
In Shillong, where the event took place, fermentation was not only a topic for discussion, but something tangible you could experience firsthand (literally: cutlery is certainly not in vogue here). In the North Eastern regions of India, fermented foodstuffs are a vital component of people’s diets: flavours that are often very “difficult” for a western palate to accept, but equally fascinating to discover in their variety and differences from one tribe to another – there are 70 in this area alone.
Fermented bamboo shoots are very popular, usually accompanied with steamed rice and pork, which also appears in the recipe for Tungrymbai: fermented soy beans, black sesame paste and diced pork (obviously cooked with garlic, onion, turmeric, chilli pepper and ginger: ingredients that are never missing from any local dish). Still on the subject of fermented foods, we have Tungtap, a cross between a sauce and a chutney of fermented dried fish. If you manage to ignore the smell, you will discover nuances of piquancy and acidity beyond imagination.