Friday, April 20, 2012

JOT #37: Fermenting

Many things can be fermented: yeast is fermented into bread, apple cider fermented into vinegar, grape juice into wine, soy into miso. In India, we traditionally ferment a finely-ground batter of rice and blackgram (urad) lentils to make idlis and dosas. Milk also ferments into yogurt, cheese ages, kimchi ripens, kefir cultures, and beer brews.

All these things take a carbohydrate, like sugar, and convert it into lactic acid (usually) - the same process that inside your body gives you a cramp when you're out of shape. Instead of turning sugar into the most efficient water and CO2, like we do when we breathe, yeast and these bacteria make a delicious concoction of vinegars through this process of fermentation.

Why ferment? Well, it certainly adds flavor (think of a lovely balsamic vinegar!) and depth and complexity, and hints of sourness and tartness and "umami" which are delectable, a good enough reason in itself. But add to that the potential health benefits of many fermented and preserved foods and you have a winning combination.

Many of these foods allow lactobacilli to form, or other forms of beneficial bacteria that colonize our guts and help us digest our food and fight off "predator" germs. For example, my parents tell me that when they were younger, leftover rice was covered with water and left overnight in the humid weather of India. In the morning, this "kanji" was seasoned with salt and drunk as a refreshing, healthful, and filling beverage. You've also probably heard about the advantages of the resveratrol in wine, which helps keep you living longer and may help your heart.

Other types of preserving and fermenting also allow the food to be stored for longer periods. Ordinary rice and lentils ground in water - a day, but fermented, a week, and with refrigeration even more. Other cultured foods can last even longer, which is why these fermented foods go way, way, way back in history, before refrigerators and freezers and perhaps even indoor cooking. (More info here)

Want to try? Start with something simple like letting your apple cider turn to vinegar, or bake your own bread, then move on to the more (seemingly) complex stuff. It's amazing what a little fermentation magic can do.

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