I did not like spending summer vacations in Kolkata. But those were times when pre-adolescents had hardly any say in holiday plans. So what if the humidity was unrelenting and the power cuts gave no concession to guests. To my parents, bearing the sweaty summer was a small price to pay for the storm that was cooked up when uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, even grandparents, gathered under one roof.
My solace in such times was grandfather — Babuji we called him. I would scurry to his room, make myself comfortable on his large bedstead and beseech Babuji for a story. My grandfather loved spinning tales and creating characters. Among my favourites were the stories that centred around certain creatures who, according to my grandfather, were involved in a jamboree of the sort my parents were engaged in. These critters, Babuji said, were incredibly tiny; one couldn’t see them with the naked eye. In the humid weather, they would make their home in food items — rice, milk, vegetables, even coffee — where they would feast and sing and dance all night.
But apparently, they were also working while making merry. What’s more, according to Babuji, these frolickers were for real. That was a little difficult to believe. One day, after my usual protests about adults hoodwinking children had subsided, Babuji said he would supply proof. He took me to the kitchen where cooked rice was soaked in a large pot of water. This is the abode of the characters of my stories, he said by way of introduction. Another flight of fancy, I thought. Next morning, I was roused out of sleep early. There were little bubbles in the pot, evidence, according to my grandfather, that the rice’s guests had been hard at work all night. There was a distinct change in the grains all right, but it was still difficult to believe that this was the handiwork of tiny creatures.
Years after Babuji was no more, I realised that he was introducing me to one of humankind’s oldest kitchen techniques. I could be forgiven for my disbelief. Because while human beings have been fermenting foods for centuries, their understanding of this process is barely two centuries old. When the late 17th century Dutch inventor, Antonie van Leeuwenhok, observed yeast floating in fluid through the high power lenses he had developed, they seemed to him “merely the starchy particles of the grain from which the wort (liquid obtained from the brewing of whiskey and beer) was made”. Several decades later, in the first English dictionary, writer and critic Samuel Johnson described yeast as “the ferment put into drink to make it work; and into bread to lighten and swell it”.
Till the 19th century, nobody believed in these tiny creatures. They were seen as mere natural chemical agents required for fermentation. The knowledge about the work the bacteria put in to transform food owes much to the work of the 19th century French chemist Louis Pasteur.
At my grandfather’s kitchen, the tiny creatures had bestowed the rice with a mildly pungent smell. A dash of mustard oil, green chillies and chopped onions, lemon and salt complimented the work of the microbes. This smorgasbord of flavours was paanta bhaat, the breakfast for the adults, after the night’s revelry. At times, pieces of dried fish were thrown in as well. But sadly, and unfairly, the children had to make do with squiggly omelettes and sandwiches. The leftover rice was just about enough for the adults.
Much later, as a student of social science, I learned that this breakfast owes as much to culinary exigencies as to nutritional needs. In times, when there were no refrigerators, people didn’t want to throw away rice. The grain was soaked in water for bacteria to work on and transport it to what food writer Sandor Elix Katz describes, in his 2003 book, The Art of Fermentation, as “the flavourful space between the fresh and the rotten”.
Katz is somewhat of a fermentation evangelist. His interest in food transforming bacteria owes to a health crisis. Diagnosed with HIV in the 1990s, and unsure of how many years he had left, Katz moved to a commune in Tennessee, USA, where he found a new calling. He ascribes his “fixation for fermented foods” to bumper harvests. “Agriculture doesn’t make sense without ways of storing the harvest… Stuff happens when you try to store food, or inadvertently let food sit around. Just as our bodies are covered with microorganisms, everything we eat is covered with microorganisms,” he told The New York Times. “Ferments are huge sources of flavour complexity. That’s why people find cheese so compelling. That’s why soy sauce has become a universally loved condiment,” Katz believed.
Long after I heard my grandfather’s stories about the colonisation of food by tiny creatures, armed with a rudimentary knowledge of the working of microbes, I joined a few dots, and realised that year after year around spring time, Beeji, my elderly Punjabi neighbour, would apply the technique extolled by Katz. Black carrots — the ones available in winters — would be submerged in a brine of hot water, black salt, mustard seeds and chilli powder. The yeast in the skin of the carrot would react with its sugars and pickle it. After its aquatic stint in the oversized ceramic jars that seemed to abound in Beeji’s kitchen, the root vegetables lost their crunch and assumed a tender texture. The reddish hue of the water and its tarty-salty zing were oracle of sorts for the carrot drink’s nutritive qualities, Beeji believed. “Kanji cools the stomach and prepares it for the summers after the indulgences of winter,” she would say while lavishing us with jar-fulls of the concoction.
In his own way, perhaps, my grandfather, too, knew of the complex things that micro-organisms did to food. Visit me in the monsoon, and I will treat you to panta bhaat with ilish (hilsa), he would say often. Many years later, the invitation that I could never take up, surfaced from another quarter. A request for a hilsa dish at a village in Bangladesh’s Chandpur district seemed to have embarrassed my hosts. “Would you mind the dried variety of the fish with paanta bhaat?” they asked hesitatingly. “We are not sure if you will find its smell agreeable,” they added apologetically.
I am glad I wasn’t dissuaded. The sweet-salty taste of the hilsa was subdued compared to the fresh variety. But that was only too well. The dried fish combined with the burst of flavours from the paanta bhaat to send my salivary glands into a tizzy. Each morsel was gloopy and crunchy at the same time, it was at once pungent, sharp and comforting — this was perhaps the magical layering of tastes that my grandfather wanted me to partake.
My hosts in Chandpur were agriculturists. A paanta bhaat meal is ideal preparation for the rigours of the day. One of them urged me to slurp up the fermented water, amani. Its Sanskrit moniker kanjika denotes an unmistakeable kinship with the drink Beeji would ply us with. The water is the source of all nutrients, my hosts said. It’s a sentiment shared by farmers in many parts of India. In Odisha, the fermented rice is called pakhala bhaat, the Assamese variant is known as poita bhaat, paani bhaat in Jharkhand and bhore bhaat in Chhattisgarh. Agriculturists in Tamil Nadu and Andhra are also known to have their version of the fermented rice, too.
More than 150 years after Pasteur, modern science has begun to re-emphasise the utility of fermentation. When the tiny creatures work on food, they not only add to its shelf life but also suffuse it with a dose of healthy probiotics — the live microorganisms crucial to healthy digestion and gut health. In recent times, the Human Microbiome Project has shown how “trillions of bacteria” in our body are “committed to the noble enterprise of keeping us healthy and functioning”. Fermented food, notes Katz, are crucial to this endeavour — they replenish the gut bacteria.
According to Katz, “our primate ancestors were familiar with fermenting berries and were even familiar with the phenomenon of inebriation…Human beings…figured out how to liquefy the berries and make beverages.” Food historian KT Achaya writes that cooks in ancient India, “used a variety of sweet and starchy material for fermentation: Grains (rice or barley), honey, sugarcane, sap drawn from the coconut and palmyra tree, grape, mango, date and ber, flowers like mahua”.
In his intimate account of life in Bastar, Woodsmoke and Leafcups: Autobiographical Footnotes to the Anthropology of the Durwa People (2015), ethno-botanist Madhu Ramnath describes the Durwa community’s love for mel, a spirit derived from Mahua: “Mel is distilled from irupa flowers, known as mahua in most parts of central India. The tree flowers in early spring and, during the weeks that follow, entire families spend the day gathering flowers…The flowers that are collected are spread out to dry and then stored in large bamboo dikkis with dried leaves.”
“It is said,” writes Ramnath, “that the mynah bird taught us how to make mel. Apparently, some mahua flowers had fallen into the hollow of a tree that was filled with rainwater. The soaked flowers turned the water into pas, a weak mahua infusion, which is what is distilled to make mel. The birds drank the pas and sang happily; the people who drank the pas enjoyed it too, and overtime brought into the high art of distillation”.
Mahua, research shows, abounds in nutrients. Possessed by microbes, it loses none of its nourishing prowess. But like all spirits, the line between moderation and excess is thin in case of mel as well. The drink, writes Ramnath, “is known for its magical quality of being able to alter… the best-laid plans”. However, according to the ethno-botanist, “the reality also is that the Adivasi handles mel better than most local officials”.
Ramnath’s decades-long immersion into the world of the Durwa has also alerted him to the consequences of the brew going awry: “The mel would sparkle well when sprinkled in fire, would get us into the right mood but the taste was watery and sour.” But the worst is when the drink is adulterated with dangerous substances — used batteries, for example. This amounts to interference in the work of the micro-organisms — the batteries are known to hasten the process of fermentation. “None of us drank it, it was reserved for the townspeople,” he writes.
We still do not know how humans figured out the most well-known of this fermenting processes — transforming milk into creamy and tangy yogurt. Nutrition experts agree that this has something to do with human beings’ early predicament with milk. In the early days of dairy, very few of our species had any affinity to lactose. “The likeliest scenario of how our Neolithic ancestors discovered yogurt is that at some point raw milk was exposed to a strain of wild bacteria that produced a thick, creamy product after it had been left to sit in a warm place. Humans, being the curious species we are, tasted it and liked it. More importantly, we realised that it could be stored without spoiling longer than raw milk and that lots of people could eat it. The upshot is that yogurt was a catalyst for building societies. Since more people could digest this reliable and calorie-dense source of nutrition, the newly sedentary populations of the Near East were able to gradually increase in size,” food historian Adam Maskevich writes in an article titled, ‘We didn’t build this city on rock and roll. It was yogurt’.
Pickles, kimchi, cheese, sourdough bread or kanji bear filiation to microbial behaviour that differs from what happens in breweries. The tiny creatures convert sugars or starches into lactic acid. The time-tested kitchen technology seemed to be on the wane with the advent of canned and processed foods. Pre-cooked versions of idlis, dosas, and chutneys line supermarket shelves. Pickles from food brands form part of our meals, never mind they are almost always bereft of the sharp twang of mustard oil.
But the beneficial bacteria seems to be returning to its halcyon days. Home-made pickles, kimchi, yogurt, chutneys and miso seem to be making their way back in most parts of the world. I recently had an upmarket Delhi cafe’s version of kanji. The gusto was far less than the one Beeji made, but the pickled carrots were delicately tender and the kanji was refreshing in its own right.
Alex Lewin, author of two bestsellers, Real Food Fermentation (2012) and Kombucha, Kefir and Beyond (2017), often contrasts the work of the microbes with chemical food processing. “With canning, you kill all of the microbes and seal it hermetically. With fermentation, you invite the microbes you want and don’t let in the ones you don’t. Fermentation is diplomacy and canning is a massacre,” he says in an article published in The Guardian early this year.
My grandfather made a similar argument when I asked him if paanta bhaath could be had at grocery shops. Babuji broke into a smile, furrowed his bumpy forehead in gentle admonition and asked, “Do you think the tiny creatures would like to perform their taandav in small bottles?”
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘ The Djinn In My Food’