Cultures Across Cultures: An Intro to Fermented Foods
By Anyi Cheng
Bacteria is something that scares a lot of people. From childhood, we’re encouraged to avoid germs — namely, bacteria, but also all the other micro-beings that might cause us to become ill. Would it shock you to learn that a human’s microbiome (I won’t say “the” microbiome, because each of us is made up of a completely unique assortment of eukaryotes) is very much linked to other states of our wellbeing? Beyond just improving digestion, our gut flora is responsible for our mental health, our immune system, and a whole host of other functions that keep your entire body healthy. But how do we feed ourselves in a way that also nourishes our microbiomes? Dig deeper, beyond the societally-ingrained fear of small things, and you’ll find out that cultured and fermented foods have been an important part of human’s diets for thousands of years.
Perhaps the most familiar fermented food to us college kids is the liquid that’s led to so many bad decisions and good times — alcohol. As we all learned in our high school chemistry classes, alcohol is a byproduct of the fermentation process — the anaerobic process where microorganisms (mainly yeast) eat sugar and poop out two things: acid and alcohol. Way back when (7000 BC), the inhabitants of Neolithic China started fermenting beverages out of fruit and rice. Today, we’ve learned to harness and control the yeast, isolating it and using it to metamorphose our food and drink. Mix some sugar, water, and organisms together, and with a little bit of time the concoction has completely transformed into a totally different product, with a totally different flavor and nutritional profile.
If you’ve ever picked up a bottle of Aqua ViTea from Manndibles, then you’re already familiar with a similar fermented drink. Touted as a miracle drink and probiotic cure-all, kombucha’s true health effects have yet to be scientifically proven. But who knows? There’s something about the fizzy, fruity drink — which is really just ordinary black or green tea after it’s undergone the fermentation process — that’s helped it pull in quite a cult following. Over quarantine, my roommate and I embarked on our first foray into brewing our own kombucha. The SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) is horror-movie material — it looks, genuinely, like fleshy layers of wet, alive skin. Avoiding looking at it too much, we dropped it in a gallon jar of plain old sweetened black tea. Days later, we had something that was tangy, ever-so-slightly sweet, and imbibed with an incredibly complex flavor I’d never experienced in any other kind of food. The bacteria and yeast had worked their magic, transforming a humble beverage into something awe-inspiring. Had we let our kombucha go on fermenting for longer, it too would have turned into an alcoholic drink.
Fermentation isn’t something that just applies to liquids. Think of the tangy, sour foods in your fridge. Kimchi, the delicious Korean dish made of cabbage and spices, is one. Yogurt and cheese are products of bacteria and milk. I’m actually currently dabbling in making my own yogurt at home, a drinkable version called kefir that originated in eastern Europe. And then there’s sausages — not the franks you grill for your barbecue, but the hard, traditionally cured kind like salami — which get their tangy flavor and preservation from purposefully introduced bacteria cultures.
Ready for a surprising one? Chocolate. The cocoa beans are a pale white when they come fresh out of their pod. It’s only after they ferment — the first step in their processing — do they take on that rich, dark color and the earthy, luxurious taste we all crave.
Yeast, bacteria, and other microorganisms absolutely do not deserve the bad rep they get. Though the research on probiotics and their health benefits remains far from complete, thousands of years of human history suggest that fermented and cultured foods play an important role in not just preserving food, but also alchemizing and revamping it to create a wholly new and improved product. Next time you’re at Anabel’s, pick up a jar of kraut or miso and look for the hidden ways they add bursts of flavor to your meals. Don’t be daunted by bacteria. Embrace it!