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Fermented Food: The Key to Health?

Oh, the world of fermentation. A magical world where the unseen and unknown do their fascinating, never-ending, guidable-but-not-controllable, simple-but-not-really, secretive bio processes. In the universe, fermentation processes balance the cosmos, dictating the evolution and the circle of life as we know it. In pharmaceutical world it birthed and inspired wonder drugs and in our much simpler and limited culinary world, fermentation outcomes often challenge logic, break hearts, discourage first timers, and in turn could kill but much more likely heal someone.

In my gastronomic world, there were many cases of failed fermentation attempts that dispirited and made me shed tears more times than I would admit here. But I persisted as if inviting comments from my husband who once asked me, ‘glutton for punishment?’

Bear with me and let us travel back to my tender age. When I was about eleven years old in the 1970s, my ever-so-curious mother took on a culinary certification from a hotel school at University of Trisakti in Jakarta. For months she came home with food she made in the class, things I have never seen before: baguettes, boules, pizzas, parker dinner rolls and counterparts, along with bechamel sauce and myriads of other fancy sauces. They were all utterly delicious and she truly opened up my eyes to the world cuisine.

Without realizing it I quickly became an apprentice of my mother. Partly for fun and mother-daughter bonding we often sold pizzas, croissants, danish pastries, doughnuts and all the fancy yeast breads (think braided, flower, scorpion, basket shapes) to friends and in bazaars, way before Pizza Hut, Dunkin Donuts, and Tous Les Jour entered Indonesian market. Even when we usually were big hits at the bazaar, money was not the real reason why we slaved over hot stoves in balmy Jakarta. It was the market reactions, the popping big eyes and smiles we got when the patrons tried the products, and it was pure joy for me.

My fascination with fermentation just grew and grew. Questions started popping in mind. Why is it that when we use the same ingredients and vary the fermentation length, hydration and folding method, you got different tastes in bread? Why is it that when you delay fermentation, putting the dough in the fridge overnight for bulk fermentation, you get a sweeter, deeper bread taste? Well my mother did not always have all the answers. To be fair, she was not a microbiologist and the concept of microbes being responsible was too alien for me at that time, so then it must have been magic, I thought. And what is up with natural pickles, tape, tape ketan, and all other fermented things I loved? Why my mother’s creations were much superior than the ones in the stores or even mine? She must have had the magic hands. Funny how I was superstitious that way.

Then teenage years happened. Boys, heart breaks, body image problems, and all the necessary growing-up good-evils derailed my apprenticeship with mom. I left the world of fermentation and got busy with other aspects of life until much later when we moved to the US, just four of us – me, husband and two kids - stranded with no other relatives or families in this unfamiliar small town of Ithaca, NY.

‘Stranded’ might be the wrong choice for word, because we really enjoyed our new life. Ithaca is an undeniably beautiful place with roughly 30,000 inhabitants, pristine gorges, towering waterfalls and the Finger Lakes. But when we came here the first year in 1991, strikingly white, fluffy, tasteless ‘wonder’ bread filled every supermarket shelve, and there were not many other bread choices left. School cafeteria sandwiches were built on this supposedly wonderful bread. My childhood experience with mom’s breads made me feel guilty feeding my two small kids this kind of bread so I rolled my sleeves and started investigating. Ithaca after all is surrounded by farms that produce wheat and other ancient grains and is bountiful with beautiful produce.

Good breads started flowing freely in our house. Fresh-out-of-the-oven challah breads, braided apple breads, whole-wheat this and that, the list was on and on. And then I started to get fancier by adding more microbe repertoire to my list by producing tempeh, brewing milk kefir, making sourdough breads, Korean kimchi, wonderful kombucha, jun, water kefir, natto, Japanese pickles and miso. Everything was within reach here and information resource was abundant as a default for living in a place many foreigners called home, in a melting-pot setting. And with new fermenting skills, I never felt so empowered! Highly nutritious diet of real food became financially feasible and homemade probiotic-laden healthy food was plentiful in our home.

Fermenting food is an ancient technique made new, originally to preserve bountiful harvests, then revered for its surprising flavors and complimentary medicinal benefits. To me, though, it is more like a spiritual journey, believing and acknowledging that the universe has provided us enough resources, along with invisible things that we knew almost nothing about. Those invisible things will benefit us once we open our mind and when we surrender the power to the divine wonder, they will take care of us by some means.

Fermented food provides us with beneficial bacteria for healthy digestion along with vitamins, enzymes, amino acids to help our body heal itself. One tablespoon of unadulterated kimchi is said to outperform the whole bottle of often very expensive probiotic pills in terms of strains and probiotic contents. Too far fetch? Maybe, but I bet my money and my health on kimchi instead of pills. I have gained energy, reversed my thyroid conditions, helped my husband off cholesterol reducing statin drugs, helped care for my daughter’s autoimmunity, and made some friends feel more energized and choose fermented food over medications. Was it a placebo effect? Many diet regiments and prestigious studies have indeed found the benefits of fermented food, but who really knows how it benefits you until you try it on your own.

As for me, I will forever thank my mother for opening the window to the world of creating own food in my tender age, for sparking that curiosity journey to the unseen world and for indirectly teaching me to take charge of own health. This was one of her most valuable gifts that kept on giving. Thank you, ibu. This month I am dedicating my 54th birthday miso fermentation to you with love and gratitude.

a bowl of rice and Japanese fermented beans, natto, which is loaded with vitamin K2

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