Fermentation is the art of allowing microbes - such as bacteria, yeasts or molds - to consume, flavor, and preserve organic matter intended for human consumption. Essentially the microorganisms process the matter to improve shelf-life, nutritional value, taste, or all three. Fermented food and beverages have been a popular part of the human diet since prehistoric times and today nearly every human culture consumes fermented matter in one form or another.
There are a number of fermented foods and beverages that are commonly consumed in western society including salami, vinegar, sauerkraut, pickles, cheeses, yogurt, wine, and beer. Some less obviously examples of fermented foods include chocolate, sourdough, and baguettes. Who would have thought?
Fermentation was born of necessity. Throughout most of human history, we were not able to keep all the bacteria out of our food – it was simply impossible. Bacteria was an inevitable part of our everyday lives, so humans discovered ways to use these microorganisms to our advantage. We discovered (though we did not always understand the how or why) that these microbes helped preserve food – a fact that was vitally important prior to refrigeration. We also found that many of these foods also yielded health benefits. The beneficial bacteria found in some fermented foods and drinks enhance both the digestive and immune systems, making these foods as important today as they were hundreds of years ago. In fact, in recent years fermentation has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in western society, making a comeback in the form of various yogurt cultures, kombucha (fermented tea), and popular ethnic cuisines. And after several decades of over processing our food, there has been a recent movement back towards creating our own fermented foods and drinks in the home. Some popular homemade fermented foods include cheese, yogurt, beer, vinegar, and various pickled vegetables and fruit.
Travel the world and you will find that each culture has their own unique relationship with fermented foods. Sara Dickerman, a contributing editor at Saveur Magazine, once noted, "I feel like when you give a fermented food a try, you sort of taste the thing that is very specific to a region, and it’s almost like giving you a chance to travel the world even if you can’t hop on a plane." So, if you want to experience a culture, food is a great place to start, and fermented food from that region gives you a very specific insight into a culture’s history.
Looking to explore world cultures in a new an interesting way? Try these interesting fermented foods:Beverages
- Kombucha (fermented tea – central Asia)
- Kafir (yogurt drink – central Asia)
- Pulque (cactus plants – Mexico)
- Trahanas (yogurt used to thicken soup – Greece)
- Sorghum beer (sorghum – South Africa)
- Qula (milk – Tibet)
- Poi (fish – Hawaii)
- Salami (sausage meat – Europe)
- Soy sauce (soybeans – Japan)
- Miso (soybeans – Japan)
- Natto (soybeans – Japan)
- Tempeh (soybeans – Indonesia)
- Douchi – (black bean paste – China)
- Kimchi (fermented cabbage – Korea)
- Gundruk (sinki – a regional radish-like vegetable – Himalayas)
- Tibi (fruit – Mexico)
- Daal (lentils - India)
- Injera (tef- Ethiopia)
- Gari (casava – Nigeria)
- Fufu (casava – Africa)
- Chicha (maize – South America)
- Leavened bread (yeast – Central Europe)