Almost every native diet worldwide included a traditional fermented food. Fermentation is one of the oldest known preservation methods; some historians estimate it goes as far back as 6,000 BC! Cultures traditionally used fermentation to safely store foods for long periods of time, especially after a large harvest. It also saved time, prevented waste, and made food more palatable.
Little did ancient cultures realize, fermented foods have communities of microorganisms that promote health and make our food more digestible. The bacteria in fermented foods can pre-digest nutrients, break down antinutrients that prevent digestion, and increase the diversity of probiotics in our food. Just as in any ecosystem, having a healthy community with a wide diversity of bacteria is essential to maintaining our own micro-ecosystem. The bacteria in fermented foods can also create more nutrients like Vitamin C, K, B vitamins and protein!
1. Sauerkraut literally translates to sour cabbage in German. It is made from pickled, grated cabbage and traditionally fermented.
Tips: Most products on the market that say “sauerkraut” use vinegar. If you don’t make your own sauerkraut at home, make sure it does not contain vinegar or other preservatives. Those products will not have the live beneficial bacteria. Look for products with ingredients only containing cabbage and salt. Serve sauerkraut with: salads, corn quesadillas, sandwiches, potatoes, sliced apples for a sweet and sour side dish, soups, stir frys or tacos
2. Kimchi is a versatile and tangy fermented cabbage dish with over a hundred varieties that may contain radishes, fish sauce, scallions, or garlic. Originally from Korea, it is considered medicinal and fundamental to Korean cuisine, served at every meal in Korea. It can take months or even years to ferment, just like wine or cheese. Some ways you can use it are in fried rice, with rice noodles or pasta, eggs any style, in savory pancakes, soups or stews, served with sautéed greens, grilled or broiled fish, or in tacos with beans and veggies.
Tips: Like sauerkraut, it’s not always fermented and can be processed with vinegar instead. Read ingredients on food labels to see if it’s fermented or if you are an advanced cook, experiment and make your own! If you’re still skeptical but adventurous, try out a Korean barbeque restaurant- they will have fermented kimchi, but also various other flavorful fermented side dishes that will stun your taste buds!
3. Fermented pastes: You’ve probably eaten or heard of miso, the classic soup served in Japanese restaurants. Miso is a paste made from fermented soybeans or other beans. It’s usually added to a broth with tofu, seaweed and vegetables. Various cultures, particularly in Asian countries, have other types of fermented pastes. The fermentation process creates a savory or umami flavor as a result of the salt and good bacteria releasing amino acids. Many fermented pastes also use flavorful ingredients such as red pepper, hot peppers, garlic, ginger, or even fish sauce, which adds spice and zest to meals. Some examples are doenjang from Vietnam used as a dipping sauce for spring rolls, Douchi or “black bean sauce” from China made from black soybeans, or fermented chili paste that you can easily made at home.
Tips: Note that if they contain vinegar they are usually not fermented. Read the ingredients on food labels, ask in restaurants, or experiment by making your own at home. Natural health stores or ethnic supermarkets are the best places to find fermented pastes. They can be used as a condiment for vegetables, stir frys, rice and beans, sautés, whole grains dishes, soups, stews, marinades for fish or tofu, dips, and more. Keep pastes in your refrigerator to add to cooking on days you are busy or running low on creativity.
4. Fermented condiments: In some markets, especially natural or ethnic markets, you can find fermented ketchups, relish, salsa, chutney or hot sauces, which can spice up any dish!
Tips: Avoid products that contain vinegar or other preservatives like citric acid or sodium benzoate in the ingredients label. Also, any pasteurized product is heated and will not contain the live bacteria.
5. Tempeh: a fermented soy product often used as an alternative to meat or bacon for its smoky flavor and high protein content. Add it to sandwiches, tacos, serve with avocados and quinoa, with barbeque sauce and mashed potatoes, on salads, or with egg breakfasts.
Tips: When purchasing tempeh or eating it in a restaurant, search for USDA organic tempeh whenever possible.
6. Yogurt: milk fermented with a bacterial culture. Eat it for breakfast or snacks with gluten free granola, buckwheat, puffed millet or amaranth. You can also eat it in a fruit parfait or use plain yogurt to make a savory dip by blending salt, fresh herbs, and garlic in a food processor. Coconut yogurt or soy yogurt makes a good substitute if you are vegan or lactose intolerant. If you have a yogurt maker, experiment by replacing cow’s milk with hemp milk, coconut milk, or almond milk!
Tips: Choose USDA organic and plain yogurt whenever possible. Conventional yogurt often has added sugar and preservatives. When you buy plain yogurt, you can add your own sweetener and spices for flavor.
7. Kombucha: A carbonated beverage made from fermenting tea with a SCOBY (a symbiotic culture of yeast and bacteria). Although it originated in China in about 220BC, Kombucha brewing techniques spread from China to Japan, Korea, Russia, and Eastern Europe through merchants in the early 1900s. It has become popular recently in the United States, especially among hippies, hipsters, and yogis. But don’t let its new reputation scare you away- it’s been used for thousands of years to detoxify the body, help with digestion, and increase energy levels. While there is limited scientific research on kombucha, the health benefits of tea are well documented in scientific literature; green tea and black teas have been shown to be high antioxidants such as flavanols and polyphenols, which may reduce the risk of certain cancers. And with the fermentation process, both the nutrient profile and absorption are enhanced.
Tips: Although slightly vinegary at first, its sweet and sour flavor will grow on you! As with many fermented foods, it may take 8-10 tries before you fall in love, especially if you are used to sweet drinks! Try fun flavors such as lavender, guava, and blackberry for a nutritious, gut friendly alternative to sugary beverages like fruit juice and soda. Choose lower sugar varieties that have 15g or less per serving, or mix with soda water to cut down the sweetness.
8. Dosas: A thin crepe pancake popular in Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine, made from lentils and sometimes rice. Traditionally, dosas are fermented.
Tips: You can use dosas to wrap legumes, veggies and other Indian dishes. If you go to Indian restaurants, they will usually serve them with sauces or in a wrap with saucy lentil, chickpea, vegetable or meat fillings. Dosas are great at any meal, even breakfast!
9. Injera: A fermented bread made from teff flour, and typical to Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisines. Sometimes corn, millet or sorghum are also used in the batter. In Ethiopian food, it is served instead of a fork to make a taco-like wrap for spicy legumes, vegetables, salad and meat dishes.
Try to incorporate some of these foods every day! At least a tablespoon per meal is all it takes to increase the ratio of healthy microbes in your gut. With a healthy community of microorganisms, you may even feel more energetic and healthy overall!
If you aren’t used to eating fermented foods, they might taste strange or overly acidic at first. The trick is to keep experimenting and trying them in new ways! It takes some patience to train your palate to like new foods- some researchers estimate it takes 8-10 tries to like a new food! Start with fermented food you like, and slowly incorporate new ones. Soon your palate will get used to the pungent flavors and you will want to keep eating them!
For more information on fermentation and the microbiome, you can purchase my e-book, The Healthy Microbiome Toolkit.