Why Fermented Foods?

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By Janel Ruehl
Sky Island Organics

IDYLLWILD, Calif. — Fermented foods have been an integral element of native cuisines across the planet for centuries. Although fermentation began as a method of food preservation long before the modern era of refrigeration, the associated health benefits have earned fermented foods a permanent place on the table of many cultures.

While you may be familiar with such common names as kefir, kombucha, and kimchi, the variety of fermented foods is incredibly expansive. In Japan, miso paste is a staple condiment, seasoning, and soup. In India the fermented rice dishes of idli and dosa are common favorites in the south; while the yogurt-based lassi is nearly ubiquitous in the north. The flat, fermented bread known as injera is the foundation of every Ethiopian meal. In Europe, homemade, fermented creme fraiche is a popular addition to many meals.

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Chicha is a fermented drink made from rice.

Sauerkraut is a traditional, popular condiment in Germany. The Nepalese make their own version from the whole family of brassica plants, known locally as gundruk. In South and Central America, chicha is a popular fermented drink. And in southern Turkey, the spicy, fermented drink salgam is celebrated annually with a local festival. Traditional fermented foods in the United States include pickles, old-fashioned root beer, homemade ketchup, and water kefir (the original “soda”). With such a wide variety of recipes from around the world to try, now is the time to make fermented foods a permanent fixture of your diet as well.

Fresh vegetables and dairy products are transformed into nutritional powerhouses through the process of lacto-fermentation. In this process, naturally occurring sugars and starches are converted into lactic acid through the proliferation of various species of lactic acid-producing bacteria. Lactic acid is a natural preservative, inhibiting the growth of decompositional bacteria. And yet, this process does much more than simply preserve food. Regular consumption of fermented foods improves your digestion and bowel health, supports your immune system, and can lower your food bills. Fermented foods also taste great and they are surprisingly easy and fun to incorporate into your life.

Supporting your digestion and bowel health is one of the most foundational ways to support overall health and well-being. Fermented foods introduce a wide variety of beneficial bacteria to your digestive system, known as probiotics. In addition to aiding digestion, probiotics have been shown to slow or reverse some diseases and improve bowel health. With the right balance of gut bacteria and enough digestive enzymes, you can absorb more nutrients from the food you eat. Lactic acid helps to break down proteins and iron, making them easier to digest and assimilate.

Probiotics also help digest fiber and protect you from absorbing pesticides, carcinogens and other harmful elements in your food. A healthy balance of gut bacteria aids in weight loss as well, and has been shown to decrease diabetes and obesity. Additionally, fermented foods may help combat some common food intolerances, by repairing damaged intestinal walls which lead to “leaky gut syndrome”.

Ancient Alchemy probiotic tea

Ancient Alchemy teas are produced in Idyllwild. Find them at Sky Islands Natural Foods.

Fermented foods are also one of the best ways to support your immune system. Probiotics aid in the production of a number of antibodies to various pathogens, helping you fight off common colds and viruses. If you suffer from seasonal allergies or often catch seasonal colds, try adding 2-3 tablespoons of sauerkraut to your meals. Fermented foods are excellent detoxifiers as well. They are particularly adept at helping rid your body of heavy metals, among other common toxins.

In addition to these major health benefits, fermented foods can benefit your wallet! With just a few inexpensive ingredients you can make a wide variety of fermented foods at home. Because they help you absorb more nutrients from the food you eat, the regular addition of fermented foods to your diet can reduce the number of supplements you need. And while many people have become accustomed to taking probiotic supplements, fermented foods consistently contain a wider variety of beneficial bacteria than any commercially available supplement. Of course, fermentation is also still one of the very best methods of food preservation and can help you cut down on food waste. While fresh salsa usually has a shelf life of a week or less, fermented salsa can last for up to two months in the refrigerator! If you are tired of throwing away condiments like mayonnaise and ketchup, try a fermented variety that is significantly healthier and will last much longer.

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If you’re not accustomed to eating fermented foods, rest assured that there are many great-tasting options available. You may want to start by making some simple substitutions of foods you already eat. Many commercial pickles, olives and sauerkraut are not fermented. Look for brands that utilize lacto-fermentation rather than vinegar or chemical preservatives. Water kefir, commonly known as homemade soda, is an excellent, fermented substitute for commercial brands that are loaded with sugar and high fructose corn syrup. If you already rely on some fermented staples, you might be ready to try making some fermented foods at home. Kimchi is a traditional Korean condiment that can add such a surprising and delicious depth of flavor to any veggie stir fry, basic fish or poultry dish, or even atop your favorite burger. While most kimchi contains seafood like brined shrimp and fish sauce, try this amazing vegan version from J. Kenji Lopez at seriouseats.com that is as good if not better than the original, with simple ingredients that are easy to find- even in Idyllwild!

Homemade Vegan Kimchi

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1 large head napa cabbage, cored and separated into individual leaves, about 1 lb total
I small daikon radish (about 4 ounces)
8 scallions, greens roughly chopped, whites reserved separately
Kosher salt
8 cloves garlic
One 2-inch knob ginger, peeled
1/2 cup Korean chili powder (kochukaru) (or use regular dried red chili flakes or cayenne)
2 tablespoons white or red miso paste
1 tablespoon sugar


Place cabbage leaves, daikon, and scallion greens in a large bowl and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons kosher salt. Toss to combine, cover, then let sit at room temperature until cabbage is wilted, at least 1 hour and up to 12. It should release about 1/4 to 1/2 cup liquid.

Meanwhile, combine scallion whites, garlic, ginger, chili powder, miso paste, and sugar in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Process until rough paste is formed, about 30 seconds total, scraping down sides as necessary.

Once cabbage is wilted, add chili mixture and turn to coat. Add 1 cup water to mixture. Taste liquid and add more salt as necessary (it should have the saltiness of sea water). Pack kimchi into mason jars, pressing down firmly to pack tightly and using a chopstick to release any air bubbles trapped in the bottom of the jar. Cover the kimchi with its liquid.

Seal the jars tightly and allow them to sit at cool room temperature for 24 hours, then transfer to the refrigerator. Allow to ferment at least 1 week before eating (see note). Kimchi will last for up to 1 month after opening. Alternatively, place directly in fridge after packing and taste daily starting after the first week until it’s as sour as you like it. Consume within 1 month.

The health section on SpecialsNotOnTheMenu.com is sponsored by Sky Island Organics which has a natural foods store and cafe in the Strawberry Creek Plaza on Village Center Drive in Idyllwild.

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