“You can say stinky, I can say pungent!” So says Maangchi, the online doyenne of Korean cooking. She’s making doenjang, a strongly flavoured paste made out of fermented soybeans. While preparing bricks of pungent beans may not be to everyone’s taste, fermented foods like doenjang have been undergoing a revival in London. Consumers, who once may have been put off the idea of unrefrigerated foods are learning to love the funk of kimchi, sour doughs and miso. The capital has even opened its first bar serving Kombucha, a fermented tea that’s been drunk for centuries in Japan and China. It’s easy to turn your nose up (figuratively or literally) at fermentation as just another food fad. But fermented foods are a mainstay of cultures from Korea to Sudan. The UK has its own proud tradition of ciders, beers, cheeses and pickles (yes these count!). Even that most British of condiments Worcestershire sauce is fermented, likely inspired by the fish sauces of Asia. So is our renewed interest just another short-lived food fashion or is fermentation here to stay?
Almost as long as people have been eating food, they’ve been fermenting it. Pre-refrigeration, fermentation was a practical way of extending the shelf-life of foods. But it’s hard to argue that historical fermentation was only driven by necessity. One of the earliest recorded Western ferments is the Roman sauce garum which was made out of fish parts packed in salt and laid out in the sun. Garum was partially a way of making unappetising scraps edible but it’s more important role was pleasure. People liked it because it tasted good; at least in the decadent, fish-part loving days of the Roman Empire. Ferments like graum are part of the vocabulary of global food culture, extending available tastes and textures. There’s crunchy, chili-laden kimchi, fizzy kombucha, and the satisfying tang of pickled vegetables. Some countries have embraced this method of food processing more than others. Top Korean scientists have created a special ‘space kimchi’ for astronauts that’s capable of withstanding cosmic rays. Korea also has the World Institute of Kimchi, whose mandate is “to carry out research and projects for the global promotion of Kimchi.”
Britain may not be throwing open the doors to a World Institute of Worcestershire Sauce but this country’s fermentation revival is growing. This enthusiasm is often about more than enlivening our food. It doesn’t take much time browsing websites or reading labels to notice the number of health claims. Kombucha in particular has been touted as a cure for everything from indigestion to HIV. Sadly, like most panaceas, there’s no evidence to support Kombucha’s status as a miracle food. The probiotics included in lacto-fermented foods like sauerkraut and yogurt may have some beneficial effects on health. But may, is the operative word. According to the NHS, most of the health claims made about probiotics remain unproven.
Fortunately, there’s more to fermentation than spurious health claims. It’s all part of the rediscovery of traditional recipes, previously in danger of being lost. This revival has been happening everywhere from London to the Faroe Islands where young restaurateurs are putting their hand to dishes like skærpekød, a dish of fermented mutton. While blue-cheese flavoured sheep may not have a universal appeal, it’s easy to see why people are so interested in fermentation. In some ways it’s a reaction to the success of food safety laws. We may be less likely to be poisoned by our food, but the resulting landscape of beige, packaged produce isn’t attractive either. Convenience food certainly has its place but so does good old-fashioned rot: for every Twinkie, a reeking chunk of Stilon. Without this balance, it’s too easy to disconnect food from its place in nature. For people who have never picked a vegetable or slaughtered a chicken, oozy, smelly, funky foods are a way of remembering that food was once alive.
Our enthusiasm for fermented food, however, can have a downside. Like a lot of big cities, London food culture loves novelty and what that usually means is inflated prices. Even if someone is prepared to roll up their sleeves and make doenjang, many people still lack the time and resources. There’s a special irony to foods like sauerkraut that were once associated with poverty no longer being available to the poor. Of course fermented cabbage is still often available cheaply, but the growth of premium brands is changing the situation. Many of the fermented foods on the market are expensive. Access to pickles may not be the most pressing political issue of post-referendum Britain but it’s speaks to wider problems. Food culture, often so open-minded about other cultures, is less egalitarian when it comes to economics.
So will fermentation last? Right now the high cost and semi-mystical health claims are doing it more harm than good. But unlike other novel foods, fermentation has been a part of food traditions in Britain for thousands of years. It’s also a preparation method rather than a single product, making it more flexible; dismissing fermentation is a bit like arguing that broiling might become passé. Fermentation won’t keep its place as the fashionable food of the moment but it also isn’t going anywhere. The current revival is introducing new flavours, textures, and technique to the British public. This, more than anything else, is why fermentation is so appealing. Ultimately, the best reason to eat fermented foods is that so many of them are delicious.