I’ll be honest, I’m still not sure what a gut microbiome is, and I don’t know that I ever will. What I do know is that I love kimchi, and I don’t care if it’s good for me or not. It’s nice that it is, though. Today, let’s explore the world through some tasty and fermented foods.
Fermentation is an ancient technique of preserving food. The process converts carbs to alcohol or acids using microorganisms—yeast or bacteria. These foods have a positive effect on the body by introducing good, healthy bacteria to the gut. Many of them are also straight-up delicious! To each their own, but even if you don’t consider some of these foods tasty, they’re no doubt interesting. How many have you tried?
Doubanjiang (Sichuan province, China)
Doubanjiang is a fermented chili bean paste dubbed “the soul of Sichuan cuisine.” It’s produced with fava beans, chili peppers, soybeans, salt, and flour. If you have ever tried one of my favorite dishes, mapo tofu, then you've tried doubanjiang. There are many different versions popular in various regions of China. The most famous is the Pixian doubanjiang, which undergoes a long ferment under the sun—up to three years!
From what I’ve read, many Chinese like to make their doubanjiang at home. It’s the key ingredient in Sichuan dishes like Twice-cooked Pork, Douban fish, and Dan Dan noodles. Doubanjiang is also used in hot pot bases, stews, and more. It’s salty, spicy, savory, and can add a rich flavor to any stir fry.
Ogiri (Igbo region, Nigeria)
Ogiri is a seasoning made from fermented oil seeds like castor, melon, sesame, and egusi. I’ve never tried this one myself, but it’s supposed to smell like stinky cheese or miso. This is an acrid, traditional Nigerian ingredient well-suited for soups and yams. It's also used in Abacha—a dish made from shredded cassava tubers. Ogiri originated from West Africa in the Igbo part of Nigeria. It brings a unique, savory element to much of the local cuisine.
Say hello to the only purple food on this list, poi. Poi is a Hawaiian dish made from fermented taro root baked and pounded into paste on a wooden board. Water mixed in with the paste achieves the poi’s desired consistency. The pudding is then categorized according to how many fingers one needs to scoop it up. The thicker the poi, the fewer fingers needed to scoop a good mouthful. Poi is sweet when it’s fresh but can sit a little longer to taste something like yogurt. This staple food in Hawaii has many health benefits. Poi includes vitamin A, B, calcium, and other nutrients. It’s also great for infants with food allergies!
Did you know the sale of poi was once banned in Hawaii? In 1911, the Hawaiian government took control after a cholera outbreak. The “Poi Bill” gave them the authority to close any poi shop that wasn’t up to standards. A sacred food in Hawaiian culture, I’m sure poi won't be going anywhere.
Bagoong (pronounced bah-go-ong) is the “stinky secret weapon” of Filipino cuisine. This paste exists in many Southeast Asian refrigerators. It’s made by fermenting fish like anchovies or perch in salt for several months. The shrimp or krill variety, alamang, is often used in a very similar fashion. The intense umami flavor adds that particular something to Filipino food. A little bit of bagoong goes a long way in any stir-fry, fried rice, and stew. It’s also a robust condiment that's spreadable on anything. Try it on fresh mangos for a delicious, salty-sweet treat. Serve it with pasta or oxtails made with Kare-Kare peanut sauce mix for a real feast. So much umami.
Natto is a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans. If you google it other suggested searches will include things like: “Why does natto taste so bad?” Anyone will tell you natto is an acquired taste, or they’ll say that natto is flat out disgusting. It has a slimy, sticky, and stringy texture that is like no other.
It's wonderful for you though! Studies show eating natto could help you lose weight. It's also reported to reduce heart disease and it can extend your life. Also, if you’re bored, there are some pretty great videos on YouTube of people trying natto for the first time. I would not recommend watching if seeing other people gag makes you gag. Many users recommend eating natto with rice, kimchi, and green onions to make it taste better.
The first time I tried it I put a big spoonful in my mouth. Dear reader, don’t make the same mistake I did. Start slow with natto.
Okay so kimchi isn’t obscure these days but it’s my favorite fermented food, so I had to talk about it. I looked at so many pictures of kimchi while writing this post that I had to order takeout before I could begin. For the record, I got japchae (Korean stir-fried glass noodles) with bibimbap (a yummy rice dish). Try both of these immediately if you haven't, please. It was all served with a nice helping of side dishes known as banchan—not the scrumptious fried chicken. Examples of banchan are kimchi, cucumber salad, and seasoned spinach. Yum.
So, what is kimchi? To paraphrase a popular hot sauce commercial, I put that stuff on everything. Kimchi on some white rice, with beef, on barbecue pork. It’s a dish composed of salted and fermented veggies such as napa cabbage and Korean radish. A variety of seasonings mix with the veggies to make kimchi: gochugaru, garlic, ginger, and more. It can either be sour or spicy, depending on who makes it, but it’s always packed with tons of flavor and umami. It’s also got a load of probiotics and vitamins, so go to town.
Sauerkraut isn’t mysterious either. We’ve been putting it on hotdogs and Reuben sandwiches in the USA forever. But, you might not know these obscure facts about 'kraut.' Most people know that sauerkraut is fine-cut cabbage fermented by lactic acid bacteria. It has a distinctive sour flavor and will last on the shelf forever. Many either love it or hate it.
Regional differences exist too. In Germany, caraway seeds and juniper berries are added to sauerkraut. In Poland, kraut typically gets made with shredded cabbage and carrots. Another variety is with beets, which gives it a very cool magenta color. Alsatian French kraut recipes include potatoes.
But where would guess that sauerkraut came from? You thought it originated in Germany, didn’t you? Surprise! Like pasta, paper money, and printing, China did it first. Fermenting cabbage likely spread from China to Europe through the Tartars. FYI, 'Tartars' is an umbrella term for different Turkic ethnic groups in Europe and Asia. It's also a sauce.
Another fun fact about sauerkraut. Thanks to its long shelf-life, it can prevent scurvy at sea. the British explorer Captain James Cook brought it with him on many voyages. Pirates, take note... ARRR.
Here's a not so fun fact about sauerkraut. During WWI, the American public didn’t want to buy a product with a German name. Thus, sauerkraut makers in the US relabeled it as “Liberty Cabbage” for the duration of the war. Liberty cabbage with a side of freedom fries, anyone?
Look at this seal. Isn't he cute? If you're brave, you can do an image search of the next food on this list. Be warned, it's not for the faint of heart. For now, here's an adorable seal instead.
Meet kiviak, the “Turducken from Hell.” This is an Inuit dish from Greenland. Kiviak consists of a seal skin stuffed with 300 to 500 little auks, a long-tailed duck native to the region. The preparer packs a fresh disemboweled seal full of them. Once full, it’s ‘sealed’ with seal fat and made airtight so the auks can ferment under a pile of rocks. This serves as a valuable resource of food in winter. Kiviak can be deadly, though. Unfortunately, Knud Rasmussen passed away from food poisoning attributed to eating kiviak. He was an explorer and anthropologist. Rasmussen was also the first European to cross the Northwest Passage via dog sled. All those achievements and still, he was no match for kiviak.
This isn’t supposed to happen though. I guess the skin is usually treated with oils to prevent maggot infestation (that’s nice). So please don't worry if you want to try it. It’s said to taste like a mature cheese or natto, for all you natto lovers out there. Yum.
Okay so this isn’t a food, but we can’t talk about fermentation without mentioning alcohol. In this case, we’re going to include a pretty mild alcoholic beverage. By mild, I mean it has an ABV of less than one percent. But still, it’s tasty and the perfect drink I’d want to cleanse my palate after eating some powerful food. Come to think of it, you could probably substitute this hearty beverage for a meal in itself.
I’m talking about kvass. They say that if you know, you know. If you hail from Eastern Europe, you know. For those who don't know, kvass is a fermented Slavic beverage usually made from rye bread. They call Guinness “the black stuff” but most kvass will give Guinness a run for its money. I like to say kvass tastes like Coke and beer had a beautiful baby, but that’s my opinion. It’s still marketed as a “patriotic” alternative to cola in Russia. The Russian company Nikola promoted its brand of kvass in an effort against "colonization.” Get it? Cola-nization? Sorry. Anyway, if you haven’t tried kvass or any of these interesting and fermented foods, get to it! It’s good for you and most of all, it’s tasty—once you get used to it.