Each day, 30 to 40 minutes is usually spent cooking. Fast traditional cooking is wonderful, but the traditional slow and carefully prepared dishes add depth, perspective and an understanding of the true meaning of the food. I like to use traditionally prepared condiments, such as tamari, ume plum vinegar, unpasteurized miso, cured olives, salted capers and well aged balsamic vinegar to compliment my quickly prepared meals. Often these dishes are rooted in the climate and politics of the era they originated from, adding romanticized imagery of the times of yore. Many well crafted preparations depend on fermentation, something we are rarely exposed to since refrigeration came into the kitchen. These dishes often define flavors of a cuisine with the unique flavors of enzymatic growth. Often they were used in winter to add flavor and vital nutrients when the fresh harvest was not available. Along with preserving and salt curing, fermentation was used to keep perishable ingredients edible.
Sauerkraut is one of those dishes. In Michigan, every Autumn during the abundant cabbage harvest, housewives and farmers would grate large amounts of the cruciferous vegetable on everything from hand graters to handyman crafted grating boxes which could shred an entire giant head at a time. The freshly shredded cabbage was placed with salt in crocks, barrels or bin, then pressed and covered to encapsulate the fermentation process. After a couple of weeks or so, the cabbage turned into sauerkraut and continued to ferment until canning. Today, a good amount of Michigan’s bountiful cabbage crop is turned into nutritious sauerkraut and donated to food banks.
In India, nation culinary treasures such as Idli, Dosa, Jallebi and Dahi (yogurt) all depend on fermentation for unique flavors and health giving enzymes. Dosa has very ancient roots in South Indian Tamil culture that are at least 6,000 years old. This original “crepe” has maintained popularity and is one of the most recognized and cherished dishes in greater Indian cuisine. Thirty years ago, Indian dahi-walla shops were frequently a stove, a pot and a cook (sometimes with a couple of cows out back) who worked among clay vessels of all shapes and sizes made to hold yogurt as it cultured. Down the street, one would usually find a potter sitting on the ground with a throwing wheel, a pile of clay vessels and a pit for firing. For yogurt, the clay would insulate as well as remove whey from the yogurt as it turned to curd over a four to five hour period. Turning milk into yogurt, butter and sweets were a method of preservation before refrigeration and was practiced wherever cows, sheep, goats and buffalo were kept. I remember my Yia Yia (Greek grandmother) making her own yogurt, keeping a string of cultures from one batch to the next. She would culture the yogurt on top of her refrigerator wrapped in towels where it would stay warm enough to transform the milk into a very tangy yogurt.
India also has a long history of pickle making, using sea salt, mustard, fenugreek, chillies and oils. I learned the craft from a Gujarati family and, over the years would make salty, hot, sour and often sweet pickles during the growing season. Pickles from eggplant, green beans, green mangos, lemons, limes and chillies accompanied the regional Indian cuisine we were preparing daily at the time.
Garum, a fermented fish sauce, was used throughout the ancient Roman Empire, much the same way fish sauces are used in Korean, Thai, Cambodian, Fillipino and Vietnamese cuisines. Soy sauce, shoyu and tamari in Chinese and Japanese cuisines are rooted in similar traditions. Asian cuisines are full of fermented products, like Tempeh, Natto and Kimchee.
Commonly acknowledged, products with long traditions of fermentation are beer and wine. The ancients became masters of wine and beer making, not just for the pleasing effects, but also because water could not be trusted. The armies of Alexander the Great marched to India using beer and wine instead of water. Bread baking as we have come to know it also started from the process of making beer and wine. The white coatings we sometimes see on grapes are a yeast that is also used for sourdough bread. Brewers yeast, the by-product of beer making, is also an old source of traditional bread yeast. Beer making is perhaps one of the oldest known fermenting traditions with archeological evidence from 9,000 years ago. Since it is made with grains, beer has kept a close relationship with bread. Ancient Egyptians had massive bakeries at the base of the Great Pyramid, capable of providing up to 30,000 loaves of bread a day and were conveniently located next to breweries. Up until the last 60 years, many people kept crocks with yeast starters in their kitchens to make bread with. With the exception of Prohibition, yeast was readily available from breweries throughout America. Packaged, and especially, active dry yeast are relatively new in the world of food.
With the arrival of dependable refrigeration, many of these foodstuffs were relegated to the realm of cultural identity as they were no longer were necessary. Commercial manufacturers took over more difficult tasks such as bread baking, wine and beer making, yogurt and butter as well as anything else they could sell back to the public in order for to time to be saved in the kitchen. 19th and 20th century kitchens evolved so fast that many of the time honored culinary traditions have become very rare or even lost.
Growing up with my Greek Yia Yia’s cooking helped me to appreciate the deep connections between food, culture and environment. For this reason when the current culinary revolution recognized these same connections, I found a natural kinship with those who embraced it. Over the years, I have also discovered the remarkable role vegetarianism has played in human history. Often, it is associated with the visionary brilliance, notably such souls as Gandhi and Einstein. Every cuisine has some form of plant based food in it and I promote that every culture has vegetarian traditions. Commonly, fermented dishes and condiments are prominent in such repertoires.
Beyond obvious refrigeration issues, both ancient and modern medicinal wisdom recognize the potent nutrition and life giving value in fermented foods. Modern science has also recognized the hazards of improperly fermenting, requiring sterile environments and standardized cultures. While this has undoubtedly increased food safety, we have also lost many organic hand-crafted traditions. Often, much of the health benefit is diminished as well. I include as many of these dishes as possible in my culinary stable and even find that once a cultured product is made, it facilitates quick and easy meals while, at the same time, adding the depth of slowly developed flavors.