A small but very powerful transformation is taking the dining world by storm. So small, indeed, it’s microscopic. Despite its size, it’s a process that has been harnessed by every culture in history and is behind some of our favourite food and drink today – it’s fermentation.
From Asia’s top chefs refining age-old recipes of kimchi, miso and fermented tofu to artisan producers around the world making craft beers, all-natural sourdough bread, or the finest organic chocolate, to “food nerds” experimenting with bubbling jars of kombucha, gooey discs of cheese, and mouldy bricks of tempeh in home kitchens, fermented food is growing in fame and glory. Yes, sauerkraut is now sexy.
“The chef and barman as rock star is a trend that will continue to grow … The rise of the rock star butcher is already upon us … Next up is the rock star farmer, the rock star fermenter, the rock star linen supplier … Craftsmanship is being elevated to superstar status.”
So says award-winning Peruvian chef at London’s Ceviche and Andina restaurants, Martin Morales.
But while the craze for crafting the fermentation process is growing, there’s nothing new about it. Our ancestors have been making bread and brewing beer for millennia, even though they had no idea of the science behind it. Someone, at some point in our history, left a bowl of ground-up grains – porridge, perhaps – and water in the sun for several hours, saw it start to froth, and decided to experiment with baking it. He or she would not have known that it was bacteria and yeasts naturally occurring in the grains, and floating all around us in the air, that caused the carbohydrates in the porridge to give off carbon dioxide, causing it to bubble. It’s that CO2 that creates the light and fluffy texture we expect from a perfectly baked loaf of bread.
There are many microbes – bacteria and fungi – that cause fermentation, some of them less pleasant than others. Certain fringe fermenters have made bread from flesh-eating bacteria known as clostridium perfringens, a close relative of the microbes that cause botulism, tetanus and food poisoning. An American doctorate student has even made edible yoghurt from her own bacteria.
Our body carries at least as many bacteria cells as human cells, and we rely on these microbes to keep us healthy, especially when it comes to digestion. “There has been a growing interest in fermented foods for the past 30 years,” says Shima Shimizu, who runs classes in fermentation at Sesame Kitchen in Sai Ying Pun.
“People are becoming more aware of gut health, and that we need to nurture the healthy bacteria in our digestive systems. Chinese medicine supports the idea that health starts with digestion – it’s an ancient concept.
“In Japan, my own cultural background, people eat fermented foods with almost every meal. I would call the recent interest in fermentation a revisiting of ancient wisdom.”
For many chefs it’s not only health, but flavour that makes fermentation exciting.
“You can create rich, new flavours with simple ingredients through the fermenting process,” says chef Kang Min-goo of Seoul’s Mingles, rated 15 on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2016 list. “However, there is still a lot of room for research and improvement to establish the database of fermentation.”
Kang describes fermentation as “essential” to Korean food. The Korean “mother sauce”, Jang, which comes in ganjang (liquid) and doenjang (paste) varieties, is made from fermented beans. The much-loved fermented vegetable dish of kimchi comes in more than 100 varieties.
“We use Jang in most of the Korean dishes at Mingles,” Kang says. “I also try using Jang in Western cooking methods. I’m now also working on desserts with various fermented ingredients, including doenjang, kombucha and makgeolli [a slightly sweet alcoholic beverage native to Korea].” Another chef harnessing the transformative power of fermentation is Adam Cliff. Having trained at David Thompson’s Nahm in Bangkok, Cliff opened Hong Kong’s first dedicated Isaan restaurant, Chachawan. He now owns and cooks at Central’s Samsen. He uses fermented tofu in his beef soup noodle broth and in a stir fry of glass noodles, squid and prawns.
“The fermented tofu adds an element of richness to the broth without imparting its distinctive ‘funk’,” he says. ‘’Our stir fry, however, embraces the funkiness of the tofu which is layered with chilli, lime, sesame, garlic and coriander along with a few other ingredients.” Cliff says that fermentation plays “a huge part” in Thai cuisine, from the common fish sauce to fermented or cured proteins, such as pork or whole fresh water fish. Before refrigeration, people learned to preserve food through fermentation.
Returning to an earlier age when individuals had more control over what we eat is another factor driving the trend of fermentation.
“In the last 20 years, the mass production of food has seen some shocking results, including Mad Cow Disease,” says Simon Poffley, co-author of Ferment, Pickle, Dry – Ancient Methods, Modern Meals, who runs The Fermentarium in London, a school that teaches the art and science of fermenting food and drinks.
“The growing interest in fermenting is tied to a bigger food movement that is concerned with the provenance of food … people want to know the story of what they eat. In the past, all food had a story – where the berries were picked, how, when, where and what was hunted. Supermarkets have made us lose our connection with food.”
People are looking for more variety and individuality in their food, according to Poffley. “Mass-produced food is aimed at the lowest common denominator – it can’t be too spicy, too salty, too bitter, too sweet. It has to please as many people as possible,” he says. “But food that is fermented at home, or by individual chefs, has so much more flavour, with wonderful ranges of sour and sweet and umami. I see fermenting food as a way to regain our child-like enjoyment of making and enjoying food.”