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Why Fermentation Has Become The New Buzzword In The Food Industry

Written By: Sonal Ved

Why Fermentation Has Become The New Buzzword In The Food Industry

A Vogue writer’s love affair with kombucha and kefir has reached new heights. Here, she pens an ode to the process of fermentation that is integral to make her favourite foods.

You’ve consumed good bacteria all your life. From dosas, idlis and dhoklas at breakfast, lassi at snack hour to the North Indian kanji in winters—there isn’t much about the fermented food trend that will shock Indians. “We’ve been doing it for years,” your mother will say rolling her eyes if you talk to her about it. Yet, there is something to be discussed about the wave that food laden with good bacteria and yeasts has given rise to.

Fermentation is picking up all over the world

“Fermentation is one of the most fundamental components of all cuisines. From idli to sourdough bread, kosher dill pickles to brie cheese, fermented foods are so integrated into our everyday lives that I find it hard to see this as a recent trend,” says Americano’s Alex Sanchez. Sanchez’s kitchen at Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda relies on basic fermented ingredients, such as a Parmigiano Reggiano that involves an age-old fermentation process in its making, “and we can’t exist without it!” he says. Sanchez also ferments cream to turn it into creme fraiche, uses a live sourdough culture that has to be ‘fed’ daily, and treats Fresno chilies in brine, which are then blended with salt and garlic into a hot sauce and served next to a plate of chicken wings.

While ferments are just a small part of Sanchez’s kitchen, as a phenomenon, fermentation has become key to influential restaurants abroad like Noma in Copenhagen or Momofuku in New York—two of the few restaurant who have designated labs and chef to experiment with fermentation techniques from around the world, which they then implement in their menus. The former also came up with a cookbook called The Noma Guide to Fermentation—one that I’m guilty of reading endlessly like a novel.

In India, modern ferments are picking up. So you’ll see restaurants and cafes such as Mumbai’s Olive Bar and Kitchen, Delhi’s Greenr Café and FabCafe, which organise fermentation workshops teaching rookies the basics of brewing kombucha and kefir, doing a quick sauerkraut and so on. And Bengaluru has opened India’s first fermentary called Kobo, an e-shop dedicated to selling ferments only.

One new restaurant in India that relies extensively on fermentation is the newly-launched Qualia in Mumbai. I asked their head chef and owner, Rahul Akerkar, about why he has taken sudden fancy to fermented foods when pickles and Akerkar have both been a part of the Indian culinary for a long time. “We were exploring the sweet-sour, agro-dolce profile of foods and ended up creating a menu that has one fermented element in each dish,” says Akerkar. So at Qualia, you’ll find jars of cucumbers, celery, honey-fermented berries, garlic, corn, tomato and several other vegetables, spices and nut.

“Both fermenting and pickling are ancient food preservation techniques. The confusion arises because the categories overlap with each other, some fermented foods are pickled, and some pickles are fermented,” he says. His menu features both. Explains further, he says a pickle is simply a food that’s been preserved in a brine or an acid like vinegar or lemon juice. “A fermented food has been preserved and transformed by benign bacteria. Usually, that means that the sugars and carbohydrates present in the food have been eaten by the “good" bacteria (often lactic acid bacteria). The bacteria then convert the sugar into other substances like acids, carbon dioxide and alcohol. Those substances in turn preserve the food,” he adds. Similar looking pickled ingredients find a spot on the menus of restaurants like Delhi’s Sly Granny and Smoke Co in Bengaluru too, but on a much smaller scale.

Food store shelves too are experiencing a rise in labels selling kefir and kombucha by artisanal producers like Zen Tiger, Bhu Kombucha and Atmosphere Kombucha. Then there are those who are making them and selling out of their homes, like Mumbai’s Bucha Bar. Others like Mo’s Kefir have a subscription service model too.

How often can you consume fermented foods on a regular basis?

According to nutrition coach Kripa Jalan from Burgers to Beasts, just eating ample pickle and sauerkraut won’t make a big difference to your life. “The challenge is optimising the good to bad bacteria ratio, which affected by several lifestyle factors inclusive of but not limited to prolonged stress, overconsumption of processed foods, minimal movement and improper sleep patterns. Basically, when your bacteria are out of balance you get sick and all diseases begin in the gut,” she says. Jalan says, “If you’re new to fermented food—start slow, maybe a tablespoon of sauerkraut or kimchi per meal and work your way up if you can tolerate it.” She further adds that for some people, especially those with histamine intolerance, fermented foods should be avoided. “Fermented foods tend to be rich in histamine (organic compound involved in local immune responses), so individuals who are histamine intolerant will experience symptoms ranging from headaches to skin issues, fatigue, bloodshot eyes, nausea with fermented foods such as cheese, yoghurt, sauerkraut, vinegar and so on so it’s a no-no for such people.

What you need to keep in mind when fermenting foods

It’s essential for you to maintain the health of your ferment. Sometimes, starters or the fermented foods itself can catch mould, get infected because of improper handling, get over fermented if not burped appropriately, rot away and so on. Such foods can turn poisonous over time—making it crucial to ensure that your ferment is healthy.

While it’s not rocket science to ferment, it’s still science. From my experience, key rules for fermentation in a humid country like India include sterilising your jars before use, keeping them in a clinically clean spot, replacing the cloth that covers your jars often and burping your ferments.

Besides your fruits and veggies are going to be preserved for days, months and sometimes years, it’s best to use only organic produce and filtered liquids. Make sure your starter is trusty—I lugged my current kombucha SCOBY halfway across the world from Noma’s fermentation lab in an air-sealed packet. And once your ferments are ready, move them from the warm spot where they have been pickling away to a slightly colder space until use.

From talking about my early experiments with fermentation about two years ago to having my own ferm lab at home—which currently includes a brown ginger bug and wheat molasses juice—my situation with fermentation is only getting more and more heady. What will you start with?

As featured in: Vogue India