When asked what is one of the single most important foods to be reintroduced into the regular diet, my answer is fermented foods. 10 years ago people wondered what on earth I was on about. Thankfully they are now making a bit of a come back, and so gradually they are becoming more well known again.
Cultured, or fermented, foods have been part of most ancient cultures for many centuries. In times gone by, foods were fermented as a way to preserve them, so that one would have supplies during the sparse cold months. Fermented foods were revered as having healing properties. The word “kefir”, Turkish in origin, actually translates to “feel good”. Other traditional fermented foods include sauerkraut (Germany), miso (Japan), tempeh (Indonesia and Japan) and kim chi (Korea), beet kvass and kombucha. In a nutshell, fermented foods are produced by providing the right environment for lactic acid producing bacteria to grow. The lactic acid preserves the food and prevents putrefactive organisms from flourishing.
So why are fermented foods so valuable?
Fermented foods provide a plethora of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and probiotics. They also have a bit of a tart or sour taste (a taste sorely missing from most modern diets) which stimulates the taste buds to send messages to the brain which send messages to the stomach to produce more digestive acids. So you get improved digestion from the enzymes and the acids.
Because the friendly bacteria – the lactobacilli – actually partially digest the food, the nutrients in it are easier for our body to absorb. Certain lactobacilli are also responsible for the manufacture of vitamins and minerals. As a result we gain much more vitamins and minerals from fermented foods than we do from raw or cooked foods. For example, you will absorb from 100 to 300 times more vitamin C from fermented cabbage than you will from raw or cooked cabbage! This increased absorption occurs with all the nutrients in the food.
More than 80% of our immune system is located in the lining of the gut wall. A large proportion of how our immune system reacts is dependant on the kind of microbes – bacteria, fungi, viruses etc – that are in our digestive tracts. Having the right kind of beneficial microbes there is essential for both healthy immune function, and healthy gut function. They protect us from allergies, asthma, eczema, autoimmune disorders, stomach, duodenal and mouth ulcers, digestive disorders and cancer to name but a few.
Unfortunately with the advent of refrigeration came the end of an era for regularly consumed fermented foods in most western cultures. Our bodies no longer get this daily intake of protective nutrients, enzymes and beneficial bacteria. This is one contributing factor to the massive rise in chronic digestive and immune disorders in the last few decades. One of the most beneficial food groups to include as part of your daily diet to regain and maintain optimal health is fermented food. They are also particularly beneficial for pregnant and breastfeeding women and, due to their anti-aging effect, anyone interested in longevity!
The catch is the joy – you have to make them yourself! Fermented foods do not lend themselves well to modern food manufacturing processes. As a result, most commercially available fermented foods – like sauerkraut, chutney’s etc, contain vinegar and have been irradiated and or pasteurised which nulls the beneficial bacteria, enzymes and vitamins. It can be great fun and very rewarding making your own fermented foods (and drinks) and you’ll find friends are intrigued and inspired by what you make!
Here’s a brief run down of a few different types of fermented foods and drinks.
Sauerkraut is just one of hundreds of fermented veggie options. Most vegetables can be fermented quite easily – goods ones to start with include carrot, cabbage, beetroot, cauliflower, parsnip and onion. Add delicious combinations of herbs and spices and you have a virtually endless variety of flavours to explore! You can even add some fruit, like grated apple or perhaps some dried goji berries to your fermented veggie recipes.
Kefir is fermented milk (I use unpasteurised milk) it’s super easy to make and is one of my favourite summer breakfasts. It is similar to yoghurt, but packs more power in it’s punch. Kefir makes delicious smoothies with cinnamon and banana or berries. Or serve like a bowl of yoghurt, sweetened with stevia if you like, and topped with ground up pepitas, fresh blueberries and a good sprinkling of cinnamon.
Coconut Water Keifr (CWF)
Made from the water in fresh young coconuts, CWF is great for kids and adults who have troubles with dairy. It gets quite fizzy and tastes delicious, so it makes an excellent alternative to soft drink. You can also make a coconut kefir “cheese” out of the flesh of the young coconut.
Naturally Fermented Ginger Beer
Another family favourite and again full of good bacteria and enzymes and tastes delish.
Made out of sweet black or green tea, kombucha is a delicious, refreshing drink. Also very fizzy it makes a great alternative to soft drinks. Make it extra yummy by adding a piece of fresh lime or a slice of fresh ginger – heaven! It is excellent for the skin, liver and immune system. An excellent detoxifier as it stimulates the liver’s glucuronidation pathway (one of the detox pathways).
Notes on introducing fermented foods into your diet
When you start to bring these amazing foods into your diet, do so slowly! When you eat large amounts of fermented foods you are getting big troops of beneficial bacteria going in. These beneficial bacteria help to kill of opportunistic bacteria and yeast, such as candida. If you kill off a large amount all at once, you are likely to get some unpleasant symptoms, such as bloating, headaches, a hang-over feeling, excessive burping or flatulence – in other words your friends won’t want to be too close to you! Go slow, starting on a teaspoon or so per day and gradually build up the variety and quantity to a cup or so per day.
- ½ cabbage (approx)
- 1kg carrots (approx)
- A couple slices of peeled, fresh ginger
- Optional garlic (1-2 cloves) if desired, finely chopped.
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- Vegetable Culture Starter (see www.bodyecology.com)
- Vegetable press OR fermenting crock pot OR large glass jar with plate that can fit into the neck, weighted down
- Sterilise all equipment using boiling water.
- Dissolve 1 sachet of Vegetable Culture Starter and 1 teaspoon of sugar in 1 glass of water. Set aside. The sugar will “wake up” the microbes in the culture starter, so they are nice and active when added to the vegetables.
- Grate all vegetables. Using a food processor makes this very quick and easy. For carrots use the grating attachment, for cabbage use the slicing attachment.
- Place grated vegetables in a large mixing bowl. Add the ginger and the cup of culture starter mixture. Mix all ingredients together thoroughly.
- Pack ingredients into vegetable press.
- With the compression platform wound up as high as it will go, place the lid on the vegetable press (you may need to use a little force to get the lid down and screwed on).
- Once the lid is on, wind the compression platform down as firmly as possible, so that the fluid completely submerges the vegetables.
- Leave out at room temperature for 5-10 days (5 days in summer, 10 days the rest of the year).
- It’s now ready to eat! Place in a large glass jar / container in the fridge, and it will keep for 8-10 months. Eat them alone as a snack, mix into salads or grains or have as a side dish with a main meal. Start with a small amount (eg 1 teaspoon / dessert spoon and build up to at least half a cup a day. Enjoy!
- The juice from a prepared batch can be used to start the next batch – instead of using culture starter every time. Just use the culture starter every few batches.