From kimchi and kefir, to kombucha and kraut, fermented food is “it” at the moment.
Fermentation occurs when food is broken down from its original state by bacteria, yeast or other micro-organisms. Fermentation leaves “good” bacteria behind, which is known to aid digestion, but levels up the taste of the ingredients.
Where to eat out for fermented foods in the UAE
A rising number of chefs across the region are experimenting with this culinary tool du jour at the moment, creating complex flavours. Take Japanese restaurant Tomo, at Raffles Dubai, for instance. It has pickled squid on its menu as well as cuttlefish served with fermented soybeans.
You can get amazake, a Japanese drink made with fermented rice, at the health café Comptoir 102 in Jumeirah (it has cardamom, cinnamon and almond milk in it, too) or try the cucumber wakame at Wild and the Moon on Alserkal Avenue in Al Quoz. It’s a salad made with wakame cucumbers, seaweed, ginger, sesame and lacto-fermented plum umeboshi (Japanese salt plums).
At Abu Dhabi’s Dai Pai Dong, you can try the wok-fried string beans with Chinese preserved vegetables (vegetables fermented by pickling with salt and brine), while at Manna Land in Al Nahyan, the menu includes a Korean pickled pancake made with kimchi, a fermented side dish that’s as essential in Korean cuisine as hummus is to Middle Eastern food.
Advice from a nutrition coach
The rising popularity of fermented foods is not only exciting for those who love the intricate flavours that come with fermentation, but also for people keen on healthy eating.
“We have good and bad bacteria in our gut all the time,” Mia Man, a board-certified health and nutrition coach in Dubai, says. “Issues arise when the ratio of bad bacteria outnumber the good. It makes sense to keep nurturing the good bacteria to keep the gut and the immune system strong and healthy.”
Good bacteria such as lactobacillus, that can be found in fermented food, has been shown to help gut issues and digestion, and Man says nurturing that bacteria in our gut is vital for good health.
“When our body is stressed it creates an environment in which the bacteria that were once good or ‘dormant’ can multiply and wreak havoc in our system. Too many antibiotics, antibacterial soap, food that isn’t prepared properly, excess sugar, stress and lack of sleep are things that can cause an imbalanced body. One way we can get back to a good balance is through fermented foods.”
Research suggests it helps everything from anxiety to cholesterol
A growing body of research offers insight into just how beneficial to health fermented foods are.
Studies have shown a strong link between fermented dairy foods and weight maintenance, while others have shown frequent yogurt consumption can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and overall mortality.
In 2015, the Iranian Journal of Public Health issued a study that showed drinking kefir (fermented milk) improves glucose levels and cholesterol in patients with Type 2 diabetes, while a 2015 study in the Journal Of Psychiatry Research have shown consumption of fermented food can lower social anxiety among young adults and improve skin. In a review of several studies that specifically looked at kimchi's effects, researchers found this popular fermented food has anti-cancer, anti-obesity, anti-aging and colorectal health properties, as well as offering benefits to the brain, immunity, skin and cholesterol.
“Lactic acid fermentation enhances the micro-nutrient profile of foods, which means they’re full of probiotics, enzymes, vitamins and minerals,” says Hanadie Basil, a holistic therapist, lifestyle coach and diet and nutrition consultant in Dubai.
Most of us already eat some form of a fermented food, possibly without even knowing it. Food and drinks such as kefir, salami, sauerkraut, sourdough bread, many yogurts, cheeses and apple cider vinegar are all fermented.
But Man warns, be careful, because some of those foods can pose risks. "Some dairy products are fermented, but not all are as beneficial as you might think. A lot of children's yogurts might have live cultures, but they're jam-packed with sugar. Don't be fooled by buzzwords."
To start adding fermented food to your daily diet, it’s best to start small. “Eating fermented food daily can only do good but start with small quantities,” adds Man. “Maybe a tablespoon of coconut yogurt or kraut with breakfast and work your way up to more. Eating too much good bacteria at once can feel a bit overpowering. But once you notice a difference in your overall well-being and health, you won’t want to live without a daily dose of good bacteria.”
Basil says the popularity of fermented foods is likely to keep increasing. “Fermented foods are gaining in popularity, in part, because consumers are trying to find ways to get back to eating more natural whole foods. Fermentation restores gut health; it increases vitamin A and C levels; it helps remove toxins from the body; it has cancer-fighting properties and it helps you absorb nutrients better.”
Why many eat less fermented foods today
But you may have to search a bit to find an array of ready-made fermented foods in stores in the UAE, although it is getting easier.
“Sadly, with advances in technology and food preparation, these time-honoured traditional foods have been largely lost in our society,” notes Man. “The amount of probiotics and enzymes available in the average diet has declined sharply over the last few decades as pasteurised milk has replaced raw, pasteurised yogurt has replaced homemade and vinegar-based pickles and sauerkraut have replaced the traditional lacto-fermented versions.
“It’s a lot to do with shelf life. Supermarkets want food that will last forever on their shelves, so they don’t lose money. However, we are the ones who lose out. Instead of the nutrient- rich foods full of enzymes and probiotics that our grandparents ate, the average diet today consists of mainly ‘dead’ foods.”
Make the healthful food at home
Both Man and Basil encourage people to try making fermented foods at home instead of relying on what may – or may not be – available in stores.
Basil says: “It’s remarkably easy to start food fermentation at home. Yogurt is the easiest to start with. You need to clean everything thoroughly, have a suitable starter culture and patience. Do not rush things.”
Another simple recipe to try at home is sauerkraut. “All you need is cabbage, herbs, water, salt and a mason jar,” Man says. “Everyone can do this. Even children can get involved in this little food experiment.”
If it still sounds too intimidating a step to try on your own, both women offer nutrition workshops that include segments on the practice of fermentation.
“I think people are fed up with being sick and are realising that conventional medicine does not always solve the problem,” Man adds. “We have easy access to information about how we can support our health using food as preventative medicine. People are waking up to this concept. It works. You really are what you eat.”
To learn more about Man's nutrition training class, which includes a full day on fermentation, visit graciouslygreen.com/raw-chef-certification-courses. For information on Basil's nutrition courses, find her on www.facebook.com/acacia.holistica.
Dill and Cucumber Kraut by Mia Man
2 heads cabbage, finely sliced
1 tablespoons of dried dill or a handful of fresh dill, finely chopped
2 large cucumbers, sliced
4 tablespoons of sea salt or pink salt
Brine – add the salt to 2 cups distilled water
Sterilise equipment and wash vegetables thoroughly.
Put cabbage, dill, cucumbers and brine in a large bowl. Mix well with clean hands, massaging in the salt. Allow the juices to release from the cabbage until it becomes ‘soft’.
Transfer vegetables, herbs and brine to a one-litre (or one-quart) glass jar. Pack down firmly. There should be no air pockets or spaces (this is important). The brine should come at least one inch above the vegetables. If not, add more brine.
Cover the jar with an airtight lid. Culture at room temperature until the desired flavour and texture are achieved.
“Burp” every few days by opening and closing the lid (you will hear a burping noise as gasses release). You can culture the kraut from one week to six or seven weeks, depending on how tangy you want it.
Once it’s fermented and you’ve started eating it, store the jar in the refrigerator. The kraut’s flavour will continue to develop as it ages.
Fermented yogurt, by Hanadie Basil
3 tablespoons plain yogurt
3 cups of 2 per cent milk
Place milk in a large saucepan over medium-high heat; cook until it reaches 45C (very warm but doesn’t burn your fingers).
Stir occasionally to prevent scorching, about 5 to 7 minutes.
Whisk together 1 cup milk and the yogurt, then stir in remaining milk.
Transfer to a one-litre (or one-quart) jar.
Wrap the jar (without the lid) in two clean kitchen towels, completely covering the sides and top. Let sit undisturbed in a warm place until yogurt has the consistency of custard, about four to five hours.
Next, refrigerate the uncovered jar. When it’s cool to the touch (after about 30 minutes), close with an airtight lid.