It might well be an ancient process, used in food and drink preparation as far back as the 7th millennium BC, but fermentation is thriving like the very finest of sourdough at the moment.
Well on its way to becoming one of next year’s hottest culinary terms, the buzzword on every discerning foodie’s lips is also being celebrated for the positive impact it has on digestive health and the role it plays in reducing food waste.
But what exactly is fermentation and is it really the future of food?
In simplified terms, fermentation is a metabolic process that involves an organism converting a carbohydrate such as starch or sugar into an alcohol (for example, yeast converts sugar into alcohol) or an acid (bacteria converts starch into lactic acid). These acids and alcohols function as natural preservatives, not only prolonging the shelf life of the product, but also lending fermented food and drinks their signature tart and tangy flavour, and encouraging the growth of probiotics. As a result, probiotic-rich fermented foods deliver a number of nutritional benefits, aiding biodiversity in the gut and improving digestion and immune function.
At an introductory level, the process is an easy one to get involved with. To make your own sauerkraut, all you need is shredded cabbage, salt, a container and time. In a process known as lacto-fermentation, the salt and cabbage react together to create their own brine solution. This allows the bacteria present on the surface of the cabbage to convert the sugars in the vegetable into lactic acid, creating a natural preservative that prevents the growth of harmful bacteria and allows the submerged-in-liquid cabbage to slowly ferment, transforming into the crisp and crunchy, delightfully sour condiment we know as sauerkraut.
To add to the appeal, fermentation is also an efficient, low-tech way to deal with food waste. The sheer simplicity of the process gifts both small and large-scale consumers the opportunity to preserve food that would otherwise be thrown away and ultimately sent to landfill, without the need for using further energy by freezing or cooking.
While still somewhat in its infancy, vegan eating continues to capture global interest, and here, too, fermentation-based technologies are increasingly being considered key to developing meat, dairy and egg-free products that appeal to consumers by mimicking original items (burgers, sausages and cheese) without the sizeable ingredients list associated with many current plant-based alternatives.
In short, it really does seem like this once left field process could well be the future of food.
Sandor Katz, leading expert on all things fermented, author of the seminal 2003 book Wild Fermentation and the man chef Rene Redzepi of Noma fame refers to as the OG on the subject, certainly believes so.
Reflecting on his 20-plus years of advocating the benefits of wild fermentation from both a nutritional and therapeutic perspective, Katz says it’s extremely gratifying to see the technique being given the respect and consideration it deserves.
“When I was growing up, bacteria were generally thought of as dangerous killers to be avoided at all cost,” he explains. “Scientific understanding has evolved considerably since and there is now widespread recognition of the importance of bacteria to our well-being and the many ways in which our physiology actually relies upon bacteria.”
For Katz, while the conversations currently being had around fermentation certainly represent progress, there is still much work to be done in terms of bringing live fermented foods into the mainstream. He firmly believes that doing so could have an important cultural and social impact on our relationship with food.
“For many people, learning to ferment at home is a step towards a much broader process of reclaiming food, breaking out of the infantilising role of consumer and embracing a more balanced role by becoming a producer as well.”
It’s not just in health and wellness circles that fermentation is having a moment; the topic is increasingly hot property in the restaurant world, too. Do a little digging and the movement is bubbling away nicely in the UAE. At the forefront of the revolution is Carlos Frunze De Garza, executive chef at Teible, the forward-thinking home-grown restaurant that opened at Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai earlier this year.
Seasonal, local food and experimental, sustainable cooking are being championed as not just a nice-to-have, but rather pivotal to the very foundations of the restaurant ethos from the outset, and the results speak for themselves: Teible was recently awarded a Bib Gourmand from Michelin.
De Garza says that fermentation — a subject that, like Katz, he has long been passionate about — is fundamental to his culinary approach.
He attributes his commitment to the process to three factors: the health benefits, sustainability element (he estimates that at Teible, 95 per cent of all potential food waste is repurposed and given a new lease of edible life thanks to fermentation and preservation) and taste factor. “Fermentation elevates food to a different form and delivers a taste that couldn’t otherwise be achieved without it,” he explains.
As a result, the technique is employed across the menu on a wide range of ingredients — vegetables, dairy products, meat and fish included — and in a number of different approaches, from making miso with local wheat berries to growing koji.
De Garza also shares Katz’s belief that while the increased interest we’re seeing in fermented food can only be a good thing, there are still significant inroads to be made. “We always wanted Teible to not just be a restaurant, but also an educational culinary hub” he says. “Our hope is that it will serve as a sort of a haven for a generation of new-thinking chefs; together there is huge potential for us to educate our consumers and tell them that it’s OK to eat fermented food.”
If your interest in the subject is sufficiently piqued, here are a few venues to try tasty fermented foods in the UAE.
One of the hottest restaurants in the region (and recipient of a much-coveted Michelin star) 11 Woodfire by chef Akmal Anuar has a menu with a number of fermented elements. “Fermentation has always been part of my cooking and the food I grew up eating,” says Anuar. “I use miso, soy sauce, preserved citrus and pickles; all of those take patience, but they undoubtedly add an edge to the taste.”
Dish to try: Atlantic sea bass, garlic and Kashmiri chill
To make this standout dish, fresh lime is first mixed with salt and left to ferment for four to five weeks. The result is turned into a paste which, along with Kashmiri chillies, is used as a seasoning rub for the fish that is then grilled over an open fire and presented whole to the table.
Fermentation has a major influence over menu development and dish design at 21grams. At the Balkan bistro and bakery in Umm Sequim, fermented vegetables (sour cabbage, pickles, lacto-fermented corn), home-made kombucha, fermented cheese and yogurts all making an appearance.
Stasha Toncev, founder and manager, explains: “Deeply rooted in our culture and our cuisine, the fermentation process is one we eagerly experiment with to create exciting new dishes. In addition, we promote sustainability and no food waste at 21grams, and fermentation is a great way to live by those values.”
Dish to try: Sarma
These sour cabbage rolls are traditionally stuffed with a mix of both smoked and ground meats, rice and seasonings and simmered slowly for hours until aromatic. At 21grams, sarma forms a part of the Soul Food section of the menu and is filled with minced beef and served with smoked brisket to sensational effect.
In a move described as a “dream come true” for De Garza, fermented elements feature on almost every dish at Teible. That said, the beef tartare is a particular standout.
Dish to try: Beef garum tartare
Featuring fermented-for-60-days, 46-hour brined beef tartare, garum aioli made from citrus vinegar, fermented local chillies, “last summer’s” pickled local kohlrabi, cured egg yolks that are first fermented for over 14 days then dried for 48 hours, local rye orange sourdough toast and 80-day fermented bread shoyu, this is a dish not to be missed.