Keeping up with the latest in a globalised world of food and wellness can be quite a challenge, especially because it is often difficult to differentiate fads from trends. This new series will aim to be a medium for breaking down India’s thriving food scene into a more digestible format. My thoughts here might often draw on insights I’m privy to as consultant in the F&B space, offset by the tongue-in-cheek perspective of my alter ego, otherwise known as The Foodie Diaries. This week’s hot topic is fermentation.
With gut health leading the charge of current health and wellness priorities, the spotlight is firmly on fermented foods from kimchi to kefir and kombucha, which are packed with the probiotic bacteria essential for good digestion.
Of course, as new-age hipster as it all sounds, fermentation itself is nothing new, with early applications traceable to 6000 B.C. Essentially a metabolic process of preserving food, fermentation involves controlling bacteria and yeast to transform food into fuel by releasing into our stomach, microorganisms that are essential for facilitating digestion.
The benefits extend to just about everything — from blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol to how we store fat and our immunity levels though it’s worth being mindful of the high-sodium levels (and associated risks) inherent in fermented foods. As with anything we consume, too much of a good thing can start to be counterproductive.
Fermented foods are a staple in the Indian diet, with most meals incomplete without a bevy of lacto-fermented achaars that add a healthy kick of flavours, from sweet-and-sour to spicy and tangy. These household staples are made by immersing fruits and vegetables in saltwater brine, releasing microbes that generate a natural preservative, in turn amping up the vitamin quotient and nutrition levels of your favourite pickle, whilst enhancing the complexity of flavours savoured with each bite.
It is, in fact, this heady quest for more robust, well-bodied flavours that has furthered experimentation with fermentation over the decades, with the process crafted, refined and adapted to fit a precise vision for the desired flavours, textures and even scents of the resulting dishes. Just consider the variations in fermented specialities across the regions and sub-regions of India alone.
South Indian staples from idlis to appams and dosas feature fermented rice-and-dal batters; in the North, fermentation has led to probiotic drinks suited to the regional climate from the creamy lassi to the tart-and-salty kanji, featuring antioxidant-rich black carrots, mustard seeds, water and black salt, with the potent concoction preserved in ceramic jars and left to ferment in the sun for as long as two to three days before being strained and served. In fact, when you get down to it, even your favourite snacks involve an element of fermentation, with fluffy tea-time dhoklas (a Gujarati speciality) made with a fermented batter of besan or chana dal, curd, water, baking soda and turmeric.
Our fascination with fermentation is just as prevalent in the present day, driven largely by our fiendish pursuit of new tastes and experiences, propelling prolific chefs to test-drive new recipes rooted in conditions which foster good bacteria and yield an exciting depth of flavour.
Noma, the two-Michelin star restaurant, has gone so far as to publish The Noma Guide to Fermentation, inspiring like-minded enthusiasts to build their own fermentation labs at home to experiment with everything from vinegar (made with celery) and shoyu (soy sauce) to koji (a variety of mold used in Japanese cooking to ferment soybeans) and umami-rich miso. As for their suggested recipes, they’re as innovative as you would expect, featuring the likes of corn-on-the-cob layered with a paste of fermented blueberries.
Meanwhile, on home turf, endless rows of 600-odd pickle jars command pride of place at Qualia, iconoclast chef Rahul Akerkar’s comeback restaurant in Mumbai, culminating in an intriguing riff on sweet-and-sour flavours and textures that play out over a series of ingredient-led plates. Expect arresting dishes such as tongue-ticklingly tart heirloom tomatoes, offset by a delicate dollop of burrata and grilled artichoke hearts, enlivened by pickled grapes and creamy cauliflower purée.
You’ll also find cafés across our metropolitan cities offering up kombucha as a healthier alternative to packaged soft drinks and even coffee. As with all fermented foods, this (black or green) tea is just as easy to brew at home too, by carefully introducing the synergistic duo of yeast and bacteria to the mix. And of course, you’re just as likely to find sauerkraut or kimchi (a spiced medley of cabbage and Korean cabbage) fermenting in another corner of these kitchens!
As our infatuation and innovation with fermentation continue to evolve through time, Salman Rushdie’s iconic reference to pickling can’t help but float to mind. His Booker Prize winning masterpiece, Midnight’s Children features food motifs in abundance, intrinsically drawing a connection between the preservation of food and the preservation of memory and history. It’s an astute observation and one that’s particularly telling of the role of fermentation across cultures and across time. The recipes and dishes may change, but the timeless quest for deeper, more pronounced flavours and an elevated epicurean experience remain.