By Chef Centehua
Live fermented foods are vital for a healthy digestive system. Live cultures are abundant in yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, miso, kimchi, etc. The alchemy that these micro-organisms work on our food is something that our ancestors understood and honored, but our over-sanitized and germaphobic culture has forgotten this ancient art. When sold in stores, fermented foods are often pasteurized, which kills the beneficial cultures and enzymes that heal and aid digestion.
The anti-bacterial craze not only wages war on microbes but on us as well. We have pasteurized, homogenized and killed the very life force in our food for the sake of safety and liability. We need to understand the symbiotic relationship we share with micro-organisms: not only do they protect us from potentially dangerous organisms, but they help build our immune system. We need to co-exist and co-operate with these microscopic life forms. They are us. We evolved from them. Our bodies carry an estimated 100 trillion bacteria populations. Our bodies are living ecosystems, and our survival depends on this biodiversity. Consuming fermented foods is a great way to invite microbial cultures to intermingle with us, thus becoming one with the world around us and allowing us to thrive on probiotic nutrients, which not only aid digestion and proper absorption of nutrients, but also provide antioxidants, strengthen the immune system and promote longevity.
Every culture from every corner of the world has a staple fermented food and/or drink. Kimchi is a traditional fermented dish of Korea. There are hundreds of varieties of kimchi but all consist mainly of napa cabbage, cucumbers, green onions, radishes and spices. Miso, the traditional Japanese seasoning, is made from fermented barley, rice and/or soybeans with salt and the fungus Koji-kin. Atchara is a Philippine condiment made from pickled unripe papaya, carrot, ginger, and garlic. Fermented millet porridge is enjoyed in Africa. Dosas and yogurt are staples in Indian cuisine. Europeans consume a variety of pickled foods, elderberry wine, and cultured dairy products. The Americas have enjoyed kombucha, sauerkraut, sour dough, kefir and chocolate for centuries. Not many people know that the cacao bean is actually the seed that is fermented to avoid germination. The ancient Maya enjoyed a fermented chocolate drink called chocolatl, “meaning bitter water.” We could go on and on. We all shared cultivation of the earth as we evolved from nature to culture. Fermenting foods and drinks makes me feel connected to my ancestral lineage.
When we eliminate fermented foods and consume enzyme- and nutrient-deficient foods such as refined carbohydrates, processed, and pasteurized foods, we force our bodies to utilize extra energy to break them down. Fermented foods act as a pre-digestive aid and enrich foods’ amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins and proteins.
The preservation and fermentation of food is an ancient primitive skill, so there is no need to be intimidated. You can start by fermenting kraut or making your own yogurt. Since I eat sauerkraut almost everyday, I began fermenting it — it’s easy and delicious. My first batch of kraut turned out so delicious that I’ve been making it ever since, always keeping a batch going. Kraut and kombucha are a staple in my diet, and I am slowly moving into more complex and exotic ferments. Have fun and explore with these beneficial wild foods.
Basic Kraut Recipe
(You may already have some of the tools you’ll need to get started.)
1 gallon wide-mouth glass jar, small plate or glass bottle that fits inside the jar
1 T. good salt, Himalayan or Celtic
I started with this small batch. Once comfortable, you can graduate to larger quantities and ferment it in a crock pot.
1. Slice the cabbage with or without the heart, then place it inside the wide mouth jar. Sprinkle salt over cabbage and, using the back of a wooden spatula, pack it in.
2. Continue pressing the cabbage down into jar tightly. You’ll notice the salt extracting the water from the cabbage. You want to keep doing this until the brine is above the cabbage. I use a bottle filled with water to weight the cabbage down and keep it under the brine to ferment.
3. Cover with a cloth, pillowcase, or thin shirt. Tie a string or rubber band at the base to keep bugs and dust out. Place in a warm place in your kitchen and come back to it a week later. Check periodically to ensure the brine has not evaporated, leaving cabbage exposed to air. If so simply, add a little water and sprinkle on a bit more salt. Your kraut should be ready in a week’s time. (I like it after three weeks of fermentation.) You can add other vegetables such as shredded carrots, beets, garlic, caraway seeds, etc. when fermenting.
Explore and enjoy the magic of this ancient craft! Here are some helpful books and links: