While it seems cultured foods such as designer kombucha and fermented vegetables are a health food trend, cultured foods have been around as long as people have. Naturally fermented foods were borne out of necessity: to preserve food in the absence of refrigeration. Naturally fermented foods, also called cultured foods, result from harnessing naturally occurring bacteria in our environment for food preservation. Our wise ancestors discovered the fine line between spoilage and deliciously cultured foods perhaps from trial and error.
Foods today that are treasured for their delicacy and sold as specialty items are full of bacteria and as some crudely say: partly rotting. There was a time where the elite class even denounced fermented foods as food for the poor. Let’s look at a list of these food that were the basis of the "commoners" diet, now pricey specialty foods in the twenty first century:
Yogurt - cheese - wine- salami- olives - pickles - sauerkraut - beer - mead - coffee - chocolate- black tea - green tea - tofu - miso - tamari- vinegar - tempeh - kombucha - kefir - kim chi - quark
What do all of these foods have in common? microorganisms.
Microbial cultures are essential to life, they form the backbone for healthy digestive and immune function. Cultured foods preserve food, retain nutrients, and even break nutrients down into more easily digestible forms. An example is soybeans; this protein-rich bean is largely indigestible without fermentation. Once fermented, it gives us the traditional foods of miso, tempeh, tamari, and tofu. Another example is milk, also difficult for some to digest in its fresh form. Once fermented into yogurt or kefir, lactose is transformed into the easier to digest, lactic acid. Live, unpasteurized, fermented food carry beneficial bacteria directly into our digestive systems where they co-exist symbiotically, breaking down food and aiding digestion.
I love cultured foods because they directly connect us to our environment. In 2008 I had the pleasure of hosting Sandor Katz here on Salt Spring Island for a fermentation workshop in which he introduced me to the word, ecoimmunonutrition. This word beautifully captures the complexity in which an organisms immune function (an organism like a human being) occurs in the context of an whole ecological system. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the trees and grasses we live among, the babies we kiss, the other humans we live with and share food with, all influence our own body's microbial cultures. Our ecoimmunonutrition depends on the foods we eat (and foods we do not eat). We build an inner ecology through nutrition. As within, so without. The state of ecology within our gut influences and expresses itself on our skin, too. In fact our skin, all of our orifices, and our gut all contain this ecology of bacteria which is working to protect our body from potentially harmful bacteria that we may come in contact with. When we cultivate an ecosystem of healthy bacteria, they outnumber the harmful bacteria that could possibly lead to infection. Eating cultured foods builds a healthy ecological culture within our own being.
I like to imagine how this would change our social culture if this information was more widely available and taught in schools.
For more information on this idea that exposure to a biodiversity of bacteria in our environment encourages healthy immunity read more about the hygiene-hypothesis here.
HOW TO MAKE CULTURED VEGETABLES: A TUTORIAL
Sauerkraut is based around one central ingredient, cabbage. However, I like to add other vegetables and herbs to make it more personal. To keep playing on the theme of culture, it's common for each household and family to have their own unique culture of sauerkraut, called Kim Chi in Korea, or Cortido in El Salvador.
Garden herbs or veg such as kale, dill, chives, young burdock leaves, nettle leaves
Optional: Chilis or cayenne powder
A large stock pot to mix everything
Optional if available: a ferment crock
Grate or finely chop 2 heads of cabbage, 1 daikon radish, 4 carrots, and lots of garlic, ginger, and onions to taste. Optional: add 2 chili peppers if you like it hot!
I also usually shred a few handfuls of fresh kale and herbs from the garden. Every time I make this, I make it a tad different based on the veggies I have available.
The key is to have cabbage as the primary ingredient so the kraut tastes nice and sweet. Have the herbs and other vegetables as an accent otherwise it'll be too bitter.
Put all of the above ingredients into one giant mixing bowl, large soup pot or crock for easy mixing.
Now, add salt.
A general guideline for salt: Add 1 tablespoon of salt for every 1¾ pounds (800 grams) of vegetables.
Truthfully, I never measure out my salt content, I just add it to taste. I use sea salt.
With clean hands begin massaging the vegetables and salt together with firm hands squeezing the veg so it softens and releases juice.
OR if you have a mallet, begin pounding heck out of your vegetables. This is the most important step to having good homemade kraut.
Taste for saltiness. Salt is a preservative, if you add too much salt you will arrest the fermentation process. If you don't add enough, your ferment will spoil.
Once the natural juices can be pressed above the vegetables, you are done massaging.
Transfer your kraut from the mixing bowl into a crock or into canning jars. Punch the veg down so the layer of liquid rises above the vegetables.
Next, place a clean and sterile weight, such as a bowl or plate, inside the vessel with a heavy item such as a stone or jar, to keep the plate weighted down.
This is important, as the vegetables need to be kept submerged below their own juices for fermentation to occur.
Here, I’ve filled a mason jar with water to act as a weight. My grandfather would use a heavy stone. Today a mason jar is what I had handy and sterilized.
Set the crock or canning jars on a counter away from direct sunlight for 3-7 days to begin fermenting.
If you are using canning jars, do not fasten the lids tightly. Air needs to escape as fermentation involves burping and bubbling.
The kraut is ready to be transferred to cold storage (fridge) once the sour aroma fills the kitchen. In a hot climate, this can take 2-3 days. In cooler climates, 5-7 days.
Do not be alarmed when you see the veggies begin to bubble and froth, this is the gaseous exchange happening that’s central to the fermentation process!
Transferring to the fridge or cold pantry slows the fermentation process down. But it will keep fermenting.
Taste it weekly until it gets to a level of sourness you like.
I highly recommend Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz for a brilliant recipe book and history of fermentation, and also Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon for more history, recipes, and general traditional food wisdom.
Eating fermented foods builds our own inner culture of healthy biomes, and connects us to traditional cultures around the world. By nourishing our digestive system with these living foods, we are quite literally farming our inner garden with a diverse ecosystem cultures to help protect our immune system.
Do you make your own sauerkraut? What's the cultured food you make? I'd love to learn from you, too!
Enjoy! And please tell me how it goes by sharing in the comments below!
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