A side effect of the pandemic, fermented foods such as kimchi, kombucha, and kefir are being made at home now that hobbyists finally have the time and energy to babysit SCOBY
It all started with sourdough.
The shuttered COVID-19 world has been unexpectedly productive for brewers, cheese makers and picklers.
Called “fermentos”, by sociocultural writer Michael Pollan, this growing tribe is having a field day preparing kimchi, kombucha, kefir, tepache, kvass, congee, miso, sauerkraut, Piccolo, rai-pani ka aachar and of course, sourdough: foods they may never have prepared in a workaday world.
These alchemists, and an expanding group of hobbyists, have finally found the time to watch grain and water turn to malt over days; milk to cheese; yeast and bacteria feed on sugars and distil into healthy tea.
Kochi-based Ouso Chakola has been fermenting black tea to make Jun, which he explains is, “the champagne of kombucha,” by adding honey instead of sugar. He discusses this new-found indulgence, “All fermentation is difficult in a fast-paced city life.
Modern society does not have the time to watch a bottle for a week, a month. One of the benefits of COVID-19 has been of people indulging in making fermented foods.”
Fermenting during the lockdown turned into a business venture for Chennai-based young entrepreneur Divya Kumar. Kombucha (fermented yeast tea) was a passion for Divya, an engineer who relocated to the city at the end of last year from San Francisco, US, where she lived for over 10 years working as an app developer.
“During a chat with my neighbour, I came to know that she was a kombucha brewer and I was thrilled. She gave me some SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) and I began to brew it, and distributed it to friends and relatives. But within a few weeks, the demand shot up and that is how I ended up launching East Coast Brewery, from where I bottle and sell kombuchas,” says Divya.
She functions from her home in Panaiyur, ECR, and her handcrafted fermented health drinks, labelled Divs, are available in hibiscus, sweet lime, ginger, jasmine, rose, blue pea and strawberry flavours. “Inspired by the flowers in our garden, I started experimenting. The turmeric soda pop and the hibiscus soda pop are my innovations,” says Divya.
Animal activist Ashwini Prem has also been making and retailing kambucha during lockdown in Kochi. Though she does it on a small scale — making eight litres a week for customers in her apartment — Ashwini has been experimenting by adding pineapple, chilli, dill, passion fruit and apples. “The key to making a fermented drink is using sterile utensils and bottles,” says Ashwini, who begins tasting after four days of fermentation so as not to allow it to “sour too much or turn acidic.” On bottling, she ‘burps’ the bottles daily and advises customers to consume them within four days.
Noticing the trend, food show director Shubhra Chatterjee, conducted a three day seminar called ‘desi cultures’ in August, on her Instagram handle @historywali, covering traditional fermentation done in cultures across India.
Over 150 people attended to listen to 13 speakers. The gamut of Indian fermented foods, from water pickles of coastal India, jackfruit and mango in brine, and variations of kanji (cooked rice left to ferment overnight in water), to pakhala in Odisha and poita bhaat in Bengal were discussed at the seminar.
According to Shubhra, the current buzz began when Goa-based sourdough maker Sujit Sumitran taught sourdough workshops online for free in the first month of lockdown.
“It initiated many into the world of bread making. Then as awareness grew that fermented foods are good for the gut and immunity, more joined in,” she says.
Wellness chef Moina Oberoi states that fermenting is not just a trend, “it is a medical science.” She adds, “Research on microorganisms and disease started only two decades ago but traditional cuisines in India, China, Tibet and many other cultures always had a holistic look at disease and lifestyle. Fermented foods have always been a part of traditional cuisine for their health aspect.” Moina’s company Mo’s Superfoods produces kefir yogurt. A fermented milk drink, kefir has its origin in Eastern Europe and is found in different variations across Europe. Like many other fermented foods, it is on a comeback trail.
Dehradun-based food and nutrition consultant, Sangeeta Khanna, who has been actively conducting virtual classes on lacto fermentation says she ferments just about anything, including chickpeas, kidney beans (rajma), okra, colocasia, yam, aubergine and bottle gourd. “As you keep trying, you will understand the process and once you get a hang of it, you will begin to reap the health benefits. Gradually, it will become a habit,” she says.
“The biggest thing about fermentation is time and patience, which the lockdown has provided in ample measure,” says Chef Gayatri Desai, who believes that The Noma Guide to Fermentation, by David Zilber and Rene Redzepi published in 2018, was a turning point in the popularity of the trend.
She founded her restaurant Ground Up in Pune last August which serves a menu inspired by fermentation. Gayatri’s lockdown creations include a granita made using strawberry vinegar; gochujang, a Korean spice paste fermented with malt; and Doburoku, made using Japanese koji rice, to add flavour to chicken broth.
Gooseberry, fresh turmeric and ginger root pickle (recipe by Sangeeta Khanna)
- (to fill 2 jars measuring 500 ml)
- Amla cut into wedges 12
- large sized green chillies, preferably mild hot 12
- Ginger root cleaned and sliced 150 gms
- Fresh turmeric root cleaned and sliced 150 grams
- Mustard powder (yellow or black) 3 tablespoon
- Turmeric powder 1 tablespoon
- Red chilly powder 1 teaspoon
- salt to taste 1 tablespoon
- Method: Slice and chop everything as desired and mix with all the ingredients in a glass bowl. Give a good toss and fill in clean jars. This pickle is ready to eat in about 3 hours and keeps changing in taste for 2-3 days. In Indian summers we keep it only for 2 days at room temperature and then refrigerate. The pickle keeps maturing slowly and get sharper in taste by time. If refrigerated it lasts about 4 weeks.
- NOTE: In watery vegetables, no need to add water as the vegetables itself would release water. But if using non-watery vegetables, we can add water to soften it. This water is also nutritious and can be consumed as a drink.
Thissur-based amateur cheese maker, Anu Joseph found this time ideal to experiment with natural fermentation to make goat cheese. “ I tried fermentation without adding any culture. It took 14 to 15 hours to get the right sourness,” says Anu, who started her venture Casaro Cremary in 2018. She has a batch of ageing goat cheese, which will be ready by December. Anu also tried her hand at making wine with black grapes.
Meanwhile Divya who was brewing five litres of kombucha per week in June increased her production to bottling 150 litres a week by September. “Brewing was a way of healing for me as I was mourning for the untimely death of my father and isolated during the lockdown,” says Divya, who also conducts blind kombucha tasting sessions every Saturday in order to familiarise people with this rather unusual product.