The Good, The Bad: Fermenting Food

While enjoying a work dinner at Ceiba this week, the conversation veered to fermented foods.  I like kimchi and fermented bean curd once in a while, and have bought into the whole probiotics movement – but it’s not like I seek out extra bacteria in my dining options. The public health-er in me is wary, as my mental image of bacteria hasn’t changed much since kindergarten hand-washing lessons. Bacteria – bad. Soap – good!

Bacteria = Bad

“A fermented food is one whose taste and texture have been transformed by the introduction of beneficial bacteria or fungi.” Or so says the New York Times article about Sandor  Katz, more commonly known as the
Guru of Fermentation.  The opening graphic for the article features a petri dish – growing what I can only assume is a strept throat culture. Eww. I wanted to know more.

“I don’t believe there’s a restaurant in the world that doesn’t have products of fermentation on their menu,Mr. Katz said. “If you have bread, you have fermented food. If you have cheese, you have fermented food. If you have salad dressing or anything with vinegar in it, you have fermented food. If you have alcoholic beverages, you have fermented food. I mean, you really can’t get through the day without eating something fermented.”

Vinegar, sour cream, Greek yogurt, wine, bread, pickles, beer… Okay, so maybe there are some good bacterias in foods I enjoy. Which brings us to the issue of kombucha. My first time trying this beverage came at the dare of a colleague. (I know, so mature.) I bought a bottle of yellow-brown liquid with bits of stuff floating in it – and shook it up. Bad move.

Kombucha is a fermented drink touted as an elixir of life and promoter of all things healthy. These claims are disputed of course, but there’s not arguing with its popularity.  In 2010, the New York Times wrote a piece on kombucha’s popularity: “While the poor economy and worries about health and the environment have diminished the national thirst for soda and bottled water, sales of kombucha and other “functional” juices in the United States topped $295 million last year, up 25% over a two-year period.”

Okay, $300 million is nothing to sneeze at. So what does it taste like? Well, after cleaning up the mess I made from shaking it first – fermentation makes carbonation, and shaken bubblies spew – like a Mentos dropped in a warm Liter of Coke.

Imagine taking a whiff of cider vinegar  – it makes your nose hairs curl up and you want to cough.  Then you take a tentative sip (without inhaling this time) and feel little bubbles tingling in your mouth. The flavor is sharp, but there’s fruit in there. It’s sort of like  Pop Rocks – tangy but something is happening in your mouth.  But it also has an odd vinegary finish that lingers. It’s not bad…but it’s also not particularly good. To me the aftertaste was the problem — a bit too much like bile. Plus, the floating bits looked like sea monkeys.

I tried kombucha  again recently to prove  that I’ve got what it takes to drink my way to health and “help detoxify and energize [my] body through natural acids.”  I sampled the Divine Grape flavor and have to admit it was better than memory recalled. This was more like fizzy grape juice that tasted healthy.

Curious? You can buy it at Whole Foods, gourmet stores, or through the wonders of Amazon,  you can even make your own!

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