Sunday, 21 March 2010

Get cultured! Part 1

"Support bacteria- they're the only culture some people have" Steven Wright

Yum. Bacteria.
There has been a huge surge of interest in so called 'friendly' bacteria of late, especially in fermented milk products but also a revival in the sourdough tradition and other foods like kefir and kombucha. Fermentation comes from the Latin ferveo, which means boiling, which is kind of self explanatory if you've ever has sourdough culture bubble out of its container and attempt to take over your kitchen, or ever made your own homebrew and woken up to a bang and found glass shards embedded in the cellar wall! I'm happy to report only the former has happened to me.

Farty Girl suggested I do a fermenting tutorial. So I got reading. And, my goodness, there is a wealth of fascinating information out there. Here's a distilled account of my skim reading:

What I've found out is that while we modern folks often view these foods as a kind of supplement to our diet, the most traditional foods of almost all cultures are cultured foods- think koji, sauerkraut, mead, tempeh, amazake, pastrami, sourdough, beer, kefir, wine, kimchi...these foods are the first examples of people taking a raw food substance, like a bag of grain or a vegetable, and working it in some way that keeps it good for far longer than the raw material, makes it more digestible and often better-tasting. I also love the way many of these traditional, cultured foods actually MAKE culture. Granny teaches her grandkids how to make umeboshi, or sourdough, or gives her daughter her kombucha culture or some rye sourdough starter. These acts strengthen ties, they forge a cultural identity. It's not surprising that the culture "soups" for these foods have names like "mother" and "daughter".

But as it turns out, granny doesn't work alone when she makes her magic foods. She has special helpers; bacteria, moulds and yeasts- depending on the food involved- in some cases it's a symbiosis of two or more, e.g yeasts and lactobacilli bacteria in the case of sourdough.

Lactobacilli are probably the most common microorganisms involved in cultured foods. They also live in our guts (I'll come back to this in a minute). They're what makes sauerkraut sauerkraut and not rotten cabbage, they make yogurt and not rotten milk. It's amazing that through cultured foods, we also work in cooperation with those ancient ancestors of ours- the bacteria get somewhere nice to live and all the food they want, and we get...well, keep reading to find out.

Aside from all the wonderful cultural bonding these foods bring about, they have lots of other lovely benefits:

As already mentioned above, fermentation makes things last longer. A jar of sauerkraut will only be getting good when a cabbage has all but rotted away. Your unleavened flatbreads baked in the morning will be tough and stale twelve hour later, but your rye sourdough loaf will make good eating for a week, and it will be even longer before it starts to mould. Although it might start to get a bit tough.

As well as making the food keep for longer, fermentation preserves the nutrients in the food- that's why Captain James Cook packed his ships with sauerkraut (and why German sailors are nicknamed krauts)-the vitamin C doesn't oxidise as the kraut is kept submerged in the brine- the lactobacilli respire anaerobically, so the sailors didn't get scurvy.

Not only does fermentation protect the nutrients in the food, it actually *increases* the bioavailability- the bacteria break down the larger molecules of proteins and lipids into simpler amino acids and fatty acids, on other words, the bacteria do some of the hard work of digestion, while letting you have the goodies- and giving your pancreas a well deserved break. In a separate post about sourdough, I'm going to go into little more detail in relation to the protein gluten. Other increases in bioavailablity happen in sourdough- the longer fermentation results in the liberation of minerals from phytates and oxalates in the grain. This is excellent news for everyone, it means you can eat wholemeal bread and enjoy the benefits of the fibre, but also get all the vitamins and minerals.

I want to separately mention the effects of fermentation on carbohydrates as I think it's especially important to IBS sufferers- the breaking down of the carbohydrates in the food render them much more digestible. Famous examples are fermented soy products and yogurt. Soy and lactose are notoriously indigestible in their raw forms, the bacteria render these foods a much lighter load on the system. You IBSers are bound to know about farting. You will know that gas is produced by the bacteria in your colon as they digest carbohydrates. The bacteria in your sauerkraut have already done that digestion before you eat the food. The gas explosion has happened outside of you, in a container. See all those bubbles in your sourdough starter, or in your jar of sauerkraut? Because of the lactobacilli, those bubbles are happening there and not in your tumtum- thank them!

As I mentioned above, lactobacilli live in our gut. By eating fermented foods, you're adding reinforcements- contributing to intestinal microflora, as it's often put.

After reading about all those wonderful benefits, I'm desperate to try lots more fermented foods. To date, I've only tried making a few different things- sourdough, yogurt, and very recently, sauerkraut. Over the next few days, I'm going to introduce you to these cultured aristocrats of the food world- some factoids, a bit of history lesson, some resources to check out and a practical how-to based on my own experiments.

For now, I leave you with two smashing resources I've found over the last few days: website by the author of the book of the same name. I fully intend to buy this book now, and also a book called Nourishing Traditions this is Thee Last Word in all things cultured. Visiting this website is in the Top 10 Things To Do Before You Die. The dude is the Culture Guru.

Nightie night Dukka readers- the weekend is over for me. It promises to be a very cultured and also very low GI week. I shall be good company, with my sugar free zen-like state of mind and snobby cultural activities:)


  1. WOW! Awesome info. Thanks so much! I love the idea that fermented foods used to be staples of our diet. It makes sense. Back in the day, people didn't have microwaves or quick heating ovens. Plus cultured meant cultured. It's nice to know that when we eat healthier, we are also eating mindful of our ancestry.

    I checked out many of those websites and they all offer kickass tutorials on how to make kraut and kimchi and everything.

    Lookin forward to hearing more about going Low GI!

  2. It's going pretty well although I have been having sneaky cups of black coffee. I haven't followed the menu plan; steel cut oatmeal for breakfast with either fruit or a little unsweetened nut butter or a dollop of hummus, beans and veggies for most other meals, although I've had some grains too. I made a rye sourdough with soaked whole wheat grains last night, I reckon it must be pretty low GI for a bread, but I didn't cook it long enough (I was too tired to stay up or set an alarm and disturb my sleep) so it's more like a moist, grainy "cake". Still, it tastes like a German rye (i.e, delicious!). Going to try baking it in slices tonight for dinner with some vegetables. Not sure if I'm going to blog about that particular bread for my sourdough tutorial...I have a far more reliable rye sourdough that's probably not as low GI. Hope you're having a good week! Mine's been very busy and I'm having car trouble. I would be looking forward to the weekend only I'm brothersitting...."fun"