Fermentation…And Lack of Information
What comes to your mind when you hear that word? Let me state some common emotions and thoughts: ‘afraid’, ‘complicated’, ‘risky’, ‘expensive’, ‘fad’, ‘hard work’ and the like.
There is lack of information and a lot of misinformation out there regarding fermented foods. That is quite strange, given that fermenting foods was core to every culture. Before the times of refrigeration, the only way to preserve food was through fermentation. Also, just like Nature does it, when we live in accordance and in alignment with the world around us, everything benefits us in some way or the other. Fermentation, even though primarily for preservation, also enhances the nutritional profile of foods tremendously. Fermented foods have incredible digestive benefits and that helps in restoration and well-being.
How Did We Get Here?
So, how did we become fearful and ignorant about the art and science of fermentation in this modern era? The story here is very similar to many other things that went wrong in last few decades, that pertain to health and well-being.
Family Structures: We started living in nuclear families. At one time, the families were large, and elders would pass what they knew and did traditionally, to their kids. Nuclear families broke that chain. No longer kids get the wisdom from their elders. A few decades ago, this was not a choice; you needed to learn the ways to survive and thrive. Now, it is a choice and that is where the second change comes in.
Busy, Busy: Our lives have gotten busier. We no longer look at cooking and food as a priority. We just want it easy, quick and cheap! That is where the corporations step in. With the promise of quick and cheap meals, the corporations have taken away the desire and need for cooking. Not everyone is a food scientist. We have no way of knowing if what we are eating is healthy or complete. That is where we put our trust in hands of government bodies and believe they will keep us safe. That is where the third thing went wrong.
Outsourced: Even though we want to believe that governing bodies are free of biases and are well-funded, that is not the case. The corporations started selling us processed goods as “foods” and with no critical checks in place, and we were fooled. Before we realized it, we have forgotten the ways of our past, we are loaded with misinformation, and thanks to all the marketing campaigns, there is nobody out there really looking out for us…and we don’t know what to do! To make matters worse, the commercialization of food production and distribution has significantly reduced the nutrition that the food carries. In search of convenience and comforts, we have compromised on the most critical thing there is…our health and our food!
So, where do we go from here and what role does fermentation play? Let’s look at the situation: One, we are not getting the highest quality foods anymore. Two, we have lost the traditional knowledge of preparing food.
The first step to get things back in order, is to let Nature take over! Let Nature fix the foods we have and make them nutritious. Let Nature take the raw ingredients and convert them into delicious super-foods! How does nature get cooking for us? Well…fermentation!
But, Why Ferment?
To understand fermentation, we have to first understand that our health is located in our gut. It is easy to visualize the health of a plant is related very strongly to its roots. Stronger the roots, stronger the plant. Similarly, our root is our gut! That is where the nutrition in the food is absorbed. A weak gut means, little nutrition coming to our body (irrespective of what we eat) and worse, what shouldn’t be making its way in, ends up finding its way into our blood, due to a weak gut. This causes allergies, inflammations and so many other diseases. Read Dr. Ron Sinha’s blog on the link between Stomach Acid and Optimal Health.
What Does Fermentation Do to Our Gut?
Well, it does few things. First, it helps restore the health of the gut by seeding it with health-promoting microbes (probiotics). Second, fermentation preserves and improves the nutrition contained in the food. It basically converts simple foods to super foods!
Healthy gut flora is key to us getting the right nutrition. Think about it – all the mammals have very similar bodies. Therefore, they need very similar nutrition. However, different species of animals eat very different foods. So how do these diverse foods give the right nutrition to the various mammals? Take for example, a Koala bear. It primarily eats eucalyptus tree leaves. How does it get all the right macro and micro nutrients from eucalyptus leaves? That is where the gut flora plays a key role. The gut flora breaks down the food and produces the nutrients your body needs. A healthy gut can ensure you have the right supply of nutrients for you to restore and maintain health. Fermented foods, by strengthening your gut flora, help your body get the nutrition it needs, even if the fruits and vegetables that you consume have lost their nutritional density. Rhonda Egidio has a wonderful blog on Probiotic Foods from an Ayurvedic perspective.
But, Why Can’t I Just Buy It From A Store?
One thought that might come to your mind is – why worry about fermenting at home when company XYZ already has the fermented food product on the shelf? Isn’t buying kombucha or kefir or yogurts from the store good enough? The answer is … unfortunately no!
Two factors play a key role in any commercialized product –
First, consistency of the product and second, the shelf-life. Traditionally done fermentation relies on heirloom cultures. These were complex and had tremendous diversity of microbes. However, they change and grow. To get the consistency of the product, the commercially done ferments rely on a few, controlled strains. So, even though the end product might look like kefir for example, the diversity of live organisms will be very limited.
Second, fermented foods keep fermenting further and further. So long shelf life is not what fermented foods are for (if you have to maintain the consistency of the product). The only way shelf life can be increased is to stop the fermentation by ‘killing’ the life forms with in! This is done through pasteurization. and other than the taste, the fermented food loses most of its probiotic properties.
I May Poison Myself!
Let’s address the fear associated with fermentation and other thoughts that if you don’t do it right, it will harm you. It is correct, if you mess up things really bad, you can end up with a bad ferment that may not be good for you to consume. But this is true for anything that you eat. How do you know if a fruit is good for you or if it has spoiled? How do you know a pizza is good or gone rancid? We all have instincts built into us through millions of years of evolution. Using our senses and our instincts, we know when the food is safe for us to consume. Trust those senses! Just like anything in life, the only way you will learn something new is when you are fearless! Fearless to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. Use failures as learning steps instead of getting discouraged from them. Unlike most things, fermentation is easy and difficult to go wrong with.
Remember, in fermentation, you are not doing much. Nature is the chef and it has millions of years of experience! To date, there is no record of somebody dying because they ate ‘bad’ fermented food.
Gather the Ancient Wisdom
Lastly and most importantly! Gather and preserve the information and knowledge your elders have. Reach out to your parents, grandparents and other seniors in the family. Ask them how they preserved and fermented foods back in their days…learn from them…learn it all when you have the chance! Don’t just ask them to do it for you…have them teach it to you.
It is this generation’s responsibility to not let the thread break…the tradition needs to be preserved and it can only happen at grass roots level. Finally, when you know some, spread the word. Share your knowledge with friends, join groups, let others know what you know and gain from them what they know. By coming together as a community, we have a chance to preserve the most valuable information…our traditional wisdom! Through that, we have a chance to bring back health to our society.
Very best! Happy fermenting and wish you health and happiness.
Note from Healthy Indian: Healthy Indian Recipes page features several probiotic food recipes (more coming up!). Check out a few below:
- Kaanji – a fermented drink made from purple carrots or beets
- Easy Homemade Kefir
- Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) is also a great probiotic. Try Pickled Chili Peppers or this Strawberry Grape Kale Salad
- Spicy Buttermilk Soup
- Raw Plantain with Yogurt Curry
- Mooli (Daikon Radish) Raita
- Chilled Cucumber Dill Soup
- Tomato Onion Raita