When Rotten Goes Right

Bacteria have been unfairly judged. From an early age, we are taught to fear it, avoid it, wash our hands of it. But bacteria are not the enemy, at least not many kinds. When you consider our bodies contain 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells, it makes sense to embrace microbial life, even thank it for keeping us healthy and functioning by feeding our bodies the most ‘alive’ foods and drinks we possibly can.

God made yeast, as well as dough, and loves fermentation just as dearly as he loves vegetation. — Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Fermentation is a food process that has in recent years experienced somewhat of a ‘revival’, altering the way people think about bacteria. More than 2000 years after Hippocrates said ‘all disease begins in the gut’, and after decades of adding preservatives to extend shelf life, we are rediscovering our interdependence with living food. At its most basic level, fermentation is the biological process by which lactic acid-forming bacteria (lactobacilli) breaks down sugars and starch in foods to make them easier to digest, while increasing beneficial bacteria.

Almost any vegetable can be fermented — some of the best are cabbage, root veggies, radishes and cauliflower — and all that’s needed is salt and some mason jars. Over time and after letting the microbes do their thing, new and wonderful flavours are created and the nutrient content is increased. The bacteria boost in the digestive tract can help with IBS and bloating, and has been known to encourage weight loss, glowing skin and enhanced immunity.

Makes you wonder why everyone isn’t doing it, right? Bill Schindler, an anthropology professor at Washington College, calls the process ‘controlled rotting’, not painting the prettiest picture and probably indicative of the reason people avoid it. By definition ferment brings about lovely words like mould, yeast, microorganisms and everyone’s favourite, bacteria (you may be more familiar with the euphemism ‘live culture’). Add to this the constant reminder from food experts that fresher is better, and it’s no surprise fermented foods are viewed as a little ‘mysterious’ shall we say. But bacteria is not a dirty word. It is, in fact, essential to human life.

Author Michael Pollan puts the mystery of fermentation down to two things. For one, the transformations are more dramatic than other forms of cooking. See: fruit juice into wine. Magic. Secondly, most other forms of cooking rely on some kind of outside energy, most commonly the application of heat, to transform food. With fermentation, the transformation happens from within.

But if you visit the kitchen chances are, fermented foods are something you already know and love — coffee, yoghurt, chocolate, cheese, sourdough. Not just about preservation, fermenting processes are also concerned with making food healthier or tastier.  Or boozier. From the pen-tailed shrew revisiting the Bertram palm each night to sip natural alcohol from its fermenting fruit, to beer found in burial chambers of the Pharaohs, humans and animals have been enjoying fermentation for centuries.

Self-proclaimed ‘fermentation revivalist’ Sandor Katz is on an Australian tour this month campaigning to dispel the myth that fermentation is something to be feared and to bring back the age-old technique. What isn’t covered in his book, The Art of Fermentation, may not be worth knowing, from the history and health implications to tools, preparation and recipes. Katz sheds light on miso and sauerkraut through to the less common dosa and Persian yoghurt soda. His key message is that fermented foods and beverages are not a new thing, despite a rapid growth in popularity over the past few years.

The New York Times listed it as one of the Ten Food Trends for 2013 alongside pig’s tails and artisanal soft-serve. During Harvard University’s Science and Cooking lecture series last year, chef David Chang spoke about his Momofuku restaurant group exploring the microbial world to create artful new flavours that develop ‘when rotten goes right’.

But like beards and kale, fermentation can be traced back far beyond the boroughs of Brooklyn, where jars of kombucha and pickled goods are currently being passed around many a rooftop garden.

Food writer Michael Pollan pens Katz’s introduction in the book, telling of ‘an eloquent protest against the homogenization of flavors and food now rolling like a great, undifferentiated lawn across the globe’. Katz explains that flavour plays a key role in fermentation alongside health and preserving benefits. The stronger flavours created by fermentation though can make it hard-won, particularly when culturally unfamiliar. Two that come to mind are cheeses of the extra-stinky variety and the pungent Korean kimchi.

In his own book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Pollan elaborates on the connection between food and culture, exploring how the four classical elements of fire, water, air and earth create delicious food and drink from the riches of nature. ‘Cooks get to put their hands on real stuff,’ he writes, ‘not just keyboards and screens but fundamental things like plants and animals and fungi’.

This reminds of us of the ever-important relationship and interconnectedness between humans and plants, that we are not separate from them but that we are made of the same stuff and have very similar needs. The complexities of ‘living food’ can at times be hard to grasp but, as our own garden thrives on nourishment from the earth, by eating food that is quite literally alive with nutrients, we will grow a beautiful garden of healthy flora on the inside as well.


Image credits: Slider, Tile