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Fascination with fermentation puts new twist on old flavours

Deep-fried fermented pork rib as served up in Thailand.

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This is part of a series exploring the cultural, technological and social trends that are informing the way we dine and select what we eat. Read the rest in the series here.

There's a rack of pork ribs rotting on my counter. In a few days, when they get a little more funky, I'll grill them over hot coals and eat them with a side of sticky rice. If that sounds weird, disgusting or dangerous, consider that in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam where this dish of fermented pork is popular, it's usually eaten raw.

In North America fermentation is normally associated with beer or wine. Depending on our background we might also add miso, sauerkraut or kimchi to that list, but it's worth remembering that fermentation is a universal technique that's been used throughout history.

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While to some, naem, as my fermented pork dish is known, might seem strange it is by no means unique in the world of funky ferments. In Sudan, camel milk is fermented up to 10 years to create the brownish, rancid product known as biruni. The notoriously foul-smelling kanga pirau, popular in the South Pacific, is made by submerging corn cobs in running water for six weeks. Personally, I've tried, and most definitely not acquired a taste for, both mikyuk, whale meat preserved in fermented blood, and hakarl, Iceland's famously intense fermented shark.

While those dishes might seem bizarre and downright terrifying, there are a lot more fermented products in our diets than most of us ever consider.

"If you have bread, you have fermented food," says cookbook author and product development consultant, Karen Barnaby. "If you have cheese, you have fermented food. Soya sauce, yogurt, sausages, coffee, cocoa, we're eating fermented products all the time without even thinking about it."

A lot of chefs these days are thinking about fermentation in imaginative ways. At his Nordic Food Lab in Denmark chef René Redzepi and his team from Noma – once again named the best restaurant in the world at this year's San Pellegrino Restaurant Awards – are aging sauerkraut in bags on the bottom of the ocean and experimenting with marmite made from juniper-ash-infused yeast.

Similarly, David Chang of the Momofuku restaurants, who calls fermentation, "the machinery of flavour," has his own lab where chefs and scientists collaborate to make their own fish sauce, cure pork fat with koji, a type of fungus, and make miso pastes created not from soybeans, but from pistachios and chickpeas.

Aaron Langille, the chef of Montreal's Restaurant Orange Rouge, staged both at Noma and at the current epicenter of all things fermented, the Cultured Pickle Shop in Berkeley, Calif. He considers the current appetite among chefs for all things fermented to be an extension of the fascination charcuterie has for chefs.

"The fact that it's something people have been doing for thousands of years and we've kind of forgotten about is extremely appealing," he says. "People are picking it up and relearning that, not only is it a great tool for preserving something, it also adds this wonderful, complex flavour to a dish. Take a cucumber for example, after you ferment it you've got a cucumber with loads of umami, a salty note, there's some sweet in there, but it still has a very up-front cucumber flavour."

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In addition to making things taste good, fermented foods are also considered to have substantial heath benefits. By generating living bacteria, the enzymes that transform the ingredients and extend their usefulness also help to improve digestion, deliver important enzymes and help the body to break down and absorb nutrients.

Next we will see chefs working with kasu, the lees or residual yeast, leftover from sake production that have served as a pickling agent in Japan for more than 100 years. Pickling ovens, known as nuka pots, built from rice bran and inoculated over several weeks with vegetable scraps to create an intense, microbially rich environment that can pickle vegetables in a single day will become common. Already, major investors such as First Beverage Ventures, whose partners include Coca-Cola and Budweiser, have invested in Kombucha, a probiotic-rich drink made from fermented tea that's poised to be the next big thing in the beverage market.

As fermentation moves out of professional kitchens and becomes a regular part of the home cook's culinary repertoire we stand to gain access to a whole new set of skills, textures and flavours.

There may even come a time when someone asks how you'd like your steak done and you'll tell them, "Fermented."

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