While the likes of kombucha and kimchi have become popular all over the world in the past few years, many of us have grown up with fermented foods in one form or another—from the fiery tang of achar and belachan to the buttery umami of miso and nattÅ. And that’s no surprise, considering large civilisations and indigenous communities across Asia have cultivated the process of fermentation over the centuries.
Consuming and preparing fermented foods comes with a whole slew of benefits too: the process creates strong, tangy flavours while ensuring a long shelf life, and, best of all, contains probiotics that vastly improves gut health.
Fermentation in the Asian context Fermenting has long been a cornerstone of culinary traditions across Asia. Communities rely on the process to preserve and increase the longevity of fresh produce prior to the creation of modern technology. This ensures a steady supply of food throughout the year, no matter how harsh the climate or season. While Asia spans numerous regions, countries, and cultures, there are a couple of key traits shared by fermentation practices across the continent.
One of most defining features is the use of natural, spontaneous fermentation in preserving fruit and vegetables. A paper in the Comprehensive Reviews of Food Science and Food Safety published in early 2020 defines this as a lack of starter culture, instead the fermentation process revolves around the food commodity slowly maturing to create alcohol and organic acids. These products are behind the unmistakable tang and pungent aroma of fermented fare, with lactic acid being the most prominent natural preservative. Key dishes made with this method include the essential Korean fermented cabbage dish kimchi and gundruk, a fermented leafy green staple from Nepal.
On the flip side, there’s the use of starter culture, where the intentional introduction of microorganisms—think yeast and bacteria—kickstarts the fermentation process. Countries across East and Southeast Asia boast their own variations of starters to create national or regional foods including alcohol and bread. While starter cultures are commonly associated with dairy products such as yoghurt and cheese, these products tend to be less popular in East Asian countries due to the reduced access to animal-based agriculture, especially when compared to the likes of India and the Middle East.
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