-Egon Bech Hanson
Handbook of Food and Beverage Fermentation Technology
What is Fermentation?
A: Put simply, allowing bacteria and fungi to digest our food before we do. In a little more precise language, the term fermentation actually refers to a collection of metabolic pathways by which microorganisms break down organic substrates (usually carbohydrates) in the absence of oxygen, culling energy from the chemical bonds in these sugars and reducing them to alcohols or acids. The term also encapsulates the act of harnessing those biochemical reactions to preserve and transform food. Though an ancient technique, to this day fermentation is unique among food processing procedures because it is the only intervention which requires the selective growth and maintenance of microbial cultures.The list of fermented foods includes: wine, cheese, beer, bread, chocolate, yogurt, kimchi, kenkey, saurkraut, soy sauce, gari, fufu, dahi, idlis, dhosas, tempeh, balancon, and thousands upon thousands more.
How does fermentation transform food?
A. Besides producing alcohol and acid, the main preservatives of fermented foods, the microbes involved with fermentation have been known to improve the digestibility of protein in certain substrates, add vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids, increase nutrient availability, remove anti-nutrients or toxins, and introduce anti-pathogenic or anti-mutagenic bacteria in the digestive system. Also, by breaking down fats and proteins in foodstuffs (it is one of the only processes that releases glutamate, the amino acid responsible for the meat-like 'umami' taste), the microorganisms involved in fermentation contribute to the development of unique flavors, aromas, and textures of foods like cheese, bread, and chocolate.
What is a Fermented Foodway?
A: Foodways refer to the behaviors and beliefs surrounding food that differ significantly from group to group, and thus serve to identify a community of practice. Check out Amy Trubeck's awesome definition here. All foods can take on a social significance, but due to the fact that many fermented foods contain live active microbial cultures, these foods have played a special role in the development of human culture. Foods with live active cultures like yogurts or pickles help communities identify boundaries by serving as culinary shibboleths, both edible (can you digest it?) and aesthetic (do you enjoy it?)*. The digestive distress which so easily marks a cuisine-neophyte, is an awful power only fermentation (outside of intolerance or pathogenic infection) can confer on food. Additionally, a predilection for, or prohibition against, the altered states of consciousness enabled by alcohol is a distinctive part of every known human culture in history. A fermented foodway would therefore encompass all of these distinctions.
Fermentation has been vital to our ancestors survival, and it has huge potential for making our world more food secure in the future. Because microorganisms are so ubiquitous and efficient, this method of transforming and preserving food is not only nutritious, it is also affordable, sustainable, and manageable on a small scale, providing food producers who have limited access to technological resources a way to add economic value to their product and utilize parts of foodstuffs which would otherwise go to waste, all at a fraction of the energy it would take to add this kind of value using other means.
And what is the point of your project?
A: Technically, the point of my project is to travel with a theme. The theme being: how is the nutritional and cultural significance of traditional fermented foods changing due to innovation in fermentation practices. What this means is that I travel to different communities around the world, seek out the ferments that are important to them, and learn how to make these foods in that context. I am basically a tourist, except that where other tourists go visit monuments, I go visit farms and factories, where other tourists go snorkling to find funny fish, I go to the market to find funny smelling fish, and where other tourists take cooking classes...well, I take cooking classes. I will not write a thesis, produce a forecast, or build a business, but I will develop a strong experience based body of knowledge regarding different fermentation practices, and how those practices affect a community of producers/consumers. The goal of my project is to learn these lessons from others, and bring this body of knowledge back home with me to share with my own food community.
* the brilliant idea that fermented foods serve as culinary shibboleths is due entirely to Professors Betsy Dexter Dwyer and Jonathan Brumberg-Straus who presented their theory in a paper titled 'Cultures and cultures; fermented foods as culinary shibboleths' at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2010.