In Praise of Rot!

Nutrition | | June 2, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Photo by yummy-porky.

Photo by yummy-porky.

When you indulge in a wonderful cheese or splendid wine, think about what’s making it taste so good: it’s rotting. Of course, in the case of the cheese or wine, the rot has taken place in a specific manner, allowing us to control the flavors.

We’ve been fermenting foods since we’ve been cooking to prevent and minimize spoilage and extend the life of our foods. When food is fermented, a bacteria or fungus is involved in breaking down the complex carbohydrates and sugars into by-products that give the food item a much more complex flavor, yet are often much more easily digestible.

With proper preparation, milk can become a thick yogurt, a satisfying buttermilk, an effervescent Kefir, a cooling Lassi, or a salty Ayran. A common milk allergenic substance like lactose is fermented by a bacteria, lactobacillis, making milk more easily digestible, even by those who are lactose intolerant.

Many cultures fermented grains to make drinks like beer. Beer can be made out of any grain from wheat and barley to millet and sorghum. Beyond being an alcoholic drink, fermented grains give us wonderful items like sourdough bread. The benefits of eating whole grains are known to most modern nutritionist as a good source of vitamins and minerals. Fermenting grains before cooking eliminates much of the mineral binding phytic acid.

It’s not just about the delicious flavor though–there is increased nutrient availability when legumes are fermented. Like grains, legumes contain many vitamins and minerals. But unlike grains, legumes also contain the essential omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids. Many of us have repeated the childhood rhyme about the magical fruit (the more you eat, the more you toot). But if beans are prepared correctly through a soaking and fermentation process, gas is decreased.

Asian cultures most famously prepare the soybean through fermentation. From this process, tempeh, miso, and natto is made. Tempeh has a complex nutty flavor and can be grilled. Miso can be used for as a base for the traditional miso soup, or added to a marinade for your favorite fish. Natto has a very unique flavor that can take some getting used to, but it contains many beneficial substances like the clot busting nattokinase.

Vegetables are another category in which food is fermented. Most are familiar with sauerkraut’s astringent sour and crunchy texture. Some may have tried the pungent and spicy Korean kimchi. Both of these dishes are based on cabbage (which when eaten raw, tend to give people gas). When fermented, cabbage increases the gut nourishing amino acid, glutamine.

Although fermenting foods used to be a necessity, it is became an almost a lost art as food sterilization and refrigeration methods were developed. Today food fermentation is back as science has revealed the health benefits from more highly available nutrients, to the beneficial probiotics, and the more satisfying and appetite curbing fifth taste.

To find out more about how to become more involved in food fermentation you can:


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1 Comment

  1. Amy says:

    Great article, Gibran! I’ve been making kimchee for a few years, and am looking forward to trying saurkraut from the Wild Fermentation book. Thanks for the great info!