Fermented food makes a comeback in the gourmand world with kimchi topping the list

Let’s be honest. There’s nothing sexy about sauerkraut. Sour fermented cabbage. So then, why do so many cultures have their own versions of it? Korean kimchi, Chinese suan sai, Salvadorean curtido. In a world enamoured by sweet and salty flavours, fermented foods seem to be an anomaly. Yet every country, culture and community has some version of fermented food, from mild Indian yogurt to powerful Japanese miso.

I get on the kimchi bus to find out why. We’re in Namyangju for Slow Food’s AsiO Gusto conference, where ‘fermentation’ is the topic du jour. At the conference, there’s an entire exhibition space dedicated to the fermented food of South Korea’s Buddhist temples. Discussing how it’s important to eat food pickled for a few days, months or even years, the graceful women monks walk me through a display of unfamiliar vegetables, mostly sourced from the mountains. It’s a good time as any to bring up that old Hippocrates chestnut: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food.” In this setting, surrounded by colourful, mysterious and unfamiliar ingredients, it’s easier to believe that the mountains have more answers than your friendly neighbourhood chemist.

I investigate bowls filled with pickled pepper paste, pickled sea weed and pickled acorn jelly. There’s radish, pickled for eight years, and tofu matured for five years. There are mysterious ingredients like agaric, perilla berries and the mottled leopard plant. As for the kimchi, the variety is mind boggling: Hulled millet kimchi, bean paste and mustard kimchi, persimmon and cabbage kimchi...

Which brings us back to that bus. We’re on our way to a class on making kimchi, which has been getting hip thanks to chefs like David Chang who introduced it at his trend setting New York restaurant, Momofuku, by cleverly blending it with familiar American favourites. (Think kimchi apple salad with maple labneh and bacon.) In February Michelle Obama posted her own kimchi recipe, made with Napa cabbage from her garden. Combine this with the current wave of ‘healing diets’, which eschew gluten and casein, focusing on gut health, and it’s easier to understand why 2013 seems to be the year of fermented foods, from apple cider vinegar, to kefir, to good old kimchi.

Our bus takes us to an organic museum, reportedly the first in the world, where there is a big bright lab designed to hold kimchi classes. Once we’re equipped with aprons, gloves and caps (“Get one drop on your clothes and you can throw them away,” we’re cautioned), a sweet old lady hands us long leaves of cabbage that have been soaked in a solution of water and salt (50:50) for two days.

Then we’re given a mix of grated radish, ginger, spring onions, garlic and chillies to massage into the leaves, before lifting the entire concoction and tucking it into a pickling jar. A tourists’ guide to kimchi I admit. Incidentally that jar practically acquires a life of its own once I take it back to my hotel, wrapping everything from my clothes to the curtains with its strong smell. Gourmands out there still annoyed about my ‘sauerkraut isn’t sexy’ statement? Try walking around with kimchi-infused hair.

But there’s good news. And given that smell, there had better be. There’s a reason you should grit your teeth and learn to love fermented food. It boosts the good bacteria in your gut. Gut flora, which have a profound influence on your health, are constantly under attack thanks to the sugar, gluten and refined carbohydrates in our daily diets. By healing them, with the help of fermented foods rich in enzymes, probiotics, vitamins and minerals, you get a host of benefits ranging from better immunity to weight loss.

This is why all cultures have a tradition of these foods. Each with its own super power, according to a quick online search. Kimchi is apparently ‘beauty food’ since it enhances nutrient assimilation and improves skin. Sauerkraut is for brain health, while miso, made from fermented soy beans and grains, is packed with essential vitamins, like potassium, along with millions of microorganisms.

But good press aside, the bottom line is that they all improve your digestion. Don’t worry too much about the unfamiliar versions, yet. In India there’s an obvious way to start: one big bowl of home-made yogurt.