A feast of fermentation: from atchara to zymology

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Posted Mar 8 2018 by Sophie Paterson of Lowimpact.org
Fermentation in action on a Korean dinner table

Sophie Paterson of Lowimpact.org takes a look at the diversity of tastes offered by fermentation, a low-impact form of food preservation which has endured through time and across cultures.

From the fish sauce of ancient empires to the many variations of fermented soybean to be found across Asia, not forgetting the pickled gherkins and sauerkrauts of Europe, fermentation takes many forms. Here I chart a (very almost) A to Z of fermented foods and processes from around the world to whet your appetite – rest assured it covers a lot more than cabbage!

Ferment: Late Middle English: from Old French ferment (noun), fermenter (verb), based on Latin fermentum ‘yeast’, from fervere ‘to boil’. Fermentation: The chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms, typically involving effervescence and the giving off of heat.

Oxford Living English Dictionary definition

From the fish sauce of ancient empires to the many variations of fermented soybean to be found across Asia, not forgetting the pickled gherkins and sauerkrauts of Europe, fermentation takes many forms. Here I chart a (very almost) A to Z of fermented foods from around the world to whet your appetite – rest assured it covers a lot more than cabbage!

Atchara (also known as achara or atsara) is a delicacy of fermented grated unripe papaya hailing from the Phillipines. It is predominantly served as a side dish or pickle alongside barbecued meat.

Brem cake is a popular snack from the Indonesian islands of Madiun and Wonogiri, produced from rice wine and also found in liquid form.

Cheonggukjang is a traditional Korean fermented soybean paste, strong in flavour and with a characteristic smell, which forms the basis of many a stew.

Deukhine hails from Senegal and is a tamarind and peanut paste, featuring fermented locust bean, peanut butter and fermented tamarind seed pods amongst a host of other flavoursome ingredients.

The fermented Deukhine sauce from Senegal

By T.K. Naliaka (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Filmjölk is a fermented milk product traditionally made in Sweden using cow’s milk. With a slightly acidic yet mild taste, it is similar in texture to cultured buttermilk or kefir.

Garum was a fermented fish sauce used to feed the masses of Ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium – you can read all about it here courtesy of No Tech Magazine.

What is called liquamen is thus made: the intestines of fish are thrown into a vessel, and are salted; and small fish, especially atherinae, or small mullets, or maenae, or lycostomi, or any small fish, are all salted in the same manner; and they are seasoned in the sun, and frequently turned; and when they have been seasoned in the heat, the garum is thus taken from them. A small basket of close texture is laid in the vessel filled with the small fish already mentioned, and the garum will flow into the basket; and they take up what has been percolated through the basket, which is called liquamen; and the remainder of the feculence is made into allec.

Via Wikipedia from the 10th century Byzantine manual Geōponika: Agricultural pursuits, Vol. II, pp. 299-300; translated by Thomas Owen, London, 1806

Hákarl is an Icelandic delicacy with a reputation as fierce as its smell. This traditional method of fermenting shark meat is an acquired taste even for the locals, as evident in the clip below.

Injera is a sourdough-based flat risen bread which is a dietary staple across Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. Traditionally made with teff flour, it has a spongy texture reminiscent of the English crumpet, though much thinner.

Jeotgal is the Japanese term for a multitude of salted fermented seafood dishes, ranging from pieces of salted fish to a liquid broth. It is used across a wide range of recipes.

Kefir, now so ubiquitous as to be featured in BBC Radio 4’s The Archers alongside fellow fermented food kimchi, is believed to originate from the mountains of the Caucasus. The fermented milk-based drink can be made with cow, sheep or goat’s milk, in each case innoculated with the kefir yeast bacterial starter.

Laben is an Arabic word which can refer to both a fermented milk yoghurt popular across the Levant region and a buttermilk traditional to North Africa.

Miso is a staple Japanese seasoning high in protein and rich in vitamins and minerals. It is made by fermenting soybeans with salt and the koji fungus, sometimes with the addition of rice, barley and other ingredients. The resulting paste is traditionally used for sauces and spreads, in the pickling of vegetables or meats, and is combination with stock to serve as misoshiru, a soup now increasingly popular outside of Japan.

Nata de coco is a sweet treat originating from the Phillipines and believed to have been created for the first time in 1973. The fermentation of coconut water results in a chewy, gel-like substance which is commonly eaten as a dessert.

Oncom hails from West Java in Indonesia and makes use of by-products from food production involving soy, peanuts and coconut. Similarly to tempeh, it is fermented using mould and requires stringent hygeine processes to avoid contamination.

Pickle is a term which covers much more than the commonly-associated pickled cucumber or even onion. The term derives from the Dutch pekel , meaning brine, in which foods are submerged. Examples of pickling range from sauerkraut to kimchi, with lots in between.

Pickled lemons are particularly popular in North African cuisines

By Miansari66 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Rakfisk is a fermented fish dish eaten in Norway, usually made by salting fresh trout. Whilst not everday fare, it is popular enough that the Norwegians produce in the region of 400 tonnes in any given year.

Salami, whilst commonly air-dried, can also be fermented. Common starter cultures include lactic acid bateria and various strains of coagulose-negative cocci, which kick-start a steady acidification process which in turn promotes a series of chemical reactions in the meat.

Tarhana can be found across the Caucuses and Middle East. Whilst it varies in form, it is essentially a dried food derived from a fermented mixture of grain and either yoghurt or fermented milk. It is usually made into a thick soup with water, stock, or milk.

Vinegar in its many varieties and with its many uses – from condiment to cleaning product – is produced using fermentation. In industrial production this can be anything from 20 hours to three days but traditional small-batch production lengthens this process from anything to a few months to several years.

Worcestershire sauce is an example of fermented food found in many a British kitchen. It in fact combines a variety of fermented ingredients, from vinegar to fish sauce to pickled lemon.

Yoghurt is a fermented food common to many cultures, with fermentation a key process in its production. The longer the fermentation, the more acidic the final product.

And finally, last but not least, we come to Zymology – not technically a food but the scientific term used to describe the process of fermentation itself. A fitting end to our A to Z of all things fermented!

If you’re inspired to expand your culinary horizons by learning more about low-impact food preservation methods, head on over to our topic introduction and do check our directory too for courses and products on offer near you.

About the author

 Sophie Paterson works as part of the Lowimpact.org team with a focus on social media and book promotion. She spent the past year living and volunteering on a farm in Devon. In any spare time she undertakes natural building work and training and attempts to keep up her Arabic language skills.