WHAT EXACTLY ARE FERMENTED FOODS?
Think of fermentation as a benign form of rot, where strains of live bacteria and fungi are allowed to grow in foods, giving them a different texture and taste. Put off yet? Don’t be. This age-old tradition has given us some of life’s best things, including wine, bread, cheese, coffee and chocolate. Each of these foods starts off as bitter, bland or simply indigestible, but is transformed by microbes into something delicious. Since the fermentation process predigests the food, thanks to the live bacteria feeding on it, our bodies absorb the nutrients more easily.
In certain fermented foods like sourdough, soya, yoghurt and miso, these microbes add an additional health kick. “Fermentation removes some toxins from foods, increases B-vitamins, and generates other unique nutritive compounds. But the most profound benefit comes from the bacteria themselves, which are alive and intact in cultured foods,” says Sandor Katz, writer and fermentation revivalist.
A good example is the yoghurt we make at home: it’s made by heating milk to kill unhealthy bacteria, then a dollop of existing yoghurt with live culture is added and the mix is allowed to ferment for a few hours. This becomes an all-you-can-eat buffet for the healthy bacteria that do things like consume the milk’s hard-to-digest lactose, transforming it into lactic acid, a by-product of digestion-aiding enzymes.
CAN BACTERIA REALLY BE GOOD FOR ME?
There is mounting evidence that adding fermented foods to our diets has a profound effect on our digestion by fighting inflammation in the gut, increasing the capacity to absorb nutrients, reducing cravings for sugar and carbs, and blocking out some toxins. It increases the amount of good bacteria (aka probiotics), the effects of which go far beyond having a robust digestive system.
“Good bacterial strains will deliver a plethora of new ingredients to the body: there’s B12 that’s usually lacking in vegetarians, choline, which aids fat metabolism and lowers blood pressure, and there’s also acetylcholine, a major neurotransmitter, which connects the gut to the parasympathetic nervous system,” explains macrobiotic nutritionist and chef, Shonali Sabherwal.
Jamun Kefir from Mo's Superfoods
While our bodies already have troops of good bacteria, we could definitely use the helping hand. Our natural ecology is under constant assault from detergent, antibacterial hand wash, chlorine, and antibiotics that can take a toll on our immune system. A diet rich in sugar, meat and dairy also destroys naturally occurring good bacteria.
“Since most of our foods have been genetically modified, they’re missing essential strains that digest food effectively,” says Moina Oberoi, wellness chef and founder of Mo’s Superfoods. The science is simple: our immune systems create fewer antibodies to fight off the bad guys in a sterile environment; and as a result, basic foods like peanuts can lead to allergic reactions. Fermented foods help regain that balance by reintroducing a shot of good bacteria that restores biodiversity, and in turn strengthens the immune system.
SO, I CAN LOAD UP ON CHEESE AND WINE?
The good news is that in India, we’ve grown up with a whole variety of fermented foods in our kitchens, like curd, idli, lassi and pickles, so the flavours aren’t completely alien to us. But not all fermented foods are the same, and only a few offer real health benefits. The general rule of thumb is to remember that most strains of good bacteria or probiotics are destroyed as soon as the food is treated with heat during the fermentation process, like pasteurised cheese, since it’s heat-treated, and wine and beer that use yeast instead of bacteria.
“Unfortunately, few traditional Indian foods retain an active fermentation process — most of our pickles use preservation techniques, where the vegetables are cooked and no bacteria is activated. There are the rare ones, like pickled turmeric and kanji (a spiced fermented drink) that have a high concentration of active bacteria, and are an excellent source of probiotics,” says Oberoi.
Ingredients like processed sugar, table salt, dairy, refined flour, refined oil, and poor quality vinegar can destroy the natural fermentation process.
Fermented foods that boost good gut health
Yoghurt: It’s the most basic food through which to introduce fermented foods in your diet. It may not have too many strains of bacteria, but it improves bone health and eases irritable bowel syndrome. Be sure to skip the flavoured variety.
Kimchi: The spiced Korean side dish is usually made of hardy vegetables like cabbage and carrots, and flavoured with ginger, chilli, garlic and salt. It’s high in fibre, low in calories, and packed with nutrients.
Indian pickles: Made with cold-pressed oil, rock or sea salt, and no sugar, this raw version is the better addition to any meal. And spices like turmeric and mustard give it added therapeutic benefits.
Sauerkraut: This German preparation of shredded cabbage cured with salt is rich in antioxidants, fibre, as well as vitamins C, B and K. It is also high in sodium, and contains iron and manganese.
Kefir: The potent probiotic drink tastes a lot like a tart, creamy yoghurt smoothie. It’s made with a combination of yeast, bacteria and milk proteins, and contains high levels of vitamins, like B12, calcium, magnesium and biotin, among others.
Kombucha: The Chinese fizzy tea is naturally sweetened, making it much easier on the palate. It reduces inflammation; supports gut health, and helps keep a check on blood sugar levels.
WHERE DO I START?
You can create your own jar of fermented veggies at home, or buy one from a store, we’re not judging. It’s key to remember you need to slowly ease fermented foods into your meals. “Suddenly introducing a lot of new bacteria can disrupt your digestive system,” warns Rebekah Blank, co-founder of Atmosphere Kombucha Health Studio, New Delhi. “Start with half a cup [of any fermented drink] a day and build up to one cup twice a day. You can drink it in the morning to jump-start your day and boost energy levels.” Besides this, there are no real rules or cause to worry; you can mix different fermented foods too, as long as you make it a habit.
Shonali Sabherwal helps you kick off your fermentation journey
½ cup cabbage, sliced (or hardy veggies like carrots, green peppers or radish) ½ tsp sea salt
Mix cabbage and sea salt in a large bowl, and gently knead the leaves with your fingers until they wilt. Press the leaves with a plate or a heavy weight for an hour till the veggies release water. Discard the water, rinse the softened leaves with filtered water, and eat a tablespoon of them with each meal as a side.
8 cups water 2 medium carrots, peeled and julienned 1 beetroot, peeled and julienned 1 ¼ tbsp black mustard powder 1 ½ tsp salt ½ tsp black salt ½ tsp red chilli powder a pinch of asafoetida (hing)
Boil water and let it cool. Then pour it along with other ingredients into a jar. Close the lid and leave it in the sun for 2-4 days. Stir it twice daily. Once it turns sour, it can be refrigerated for 2 weeks. You can eat the veggies and serve the kanji cold.