Black garlic, yak milk wine, and more ferments worth traveling for.
Those who are even mildly in touch with the wellness conversation these days can't be blamed for feeling a bit of fermentation fatigue — after all, in the past few years, the conversation has emphasized healthy bacteria and the gut biome to an almost absurd degree.
But of course — as with so many health fads — eating fermented foods is nothing new. Various forms of mold, yeast, alcohol, vinegar, and fermented pastes have been cornerstones of cuisines around the world (especially in non-Western pantries) as long as humans have been eating.
"People don't realize how much of the food they eat is fermented," says David Zilber, head of the fermentation lab at celebrated Copenhagen restaurant Noma. "Bread, cheese, coffee, chocolate, vinegar. It is one of the most ancestral foodways. It's ever-present."
Despite the history, though, the path to today's landscape of natural wine and homebrew kombucha — that is to say, the path to capturing commercial success outside of the "Ethnic Foods" aisle — was paved in part by innovative, influential chefs.
Case in point: Noma. The restaurant, which practically invented "New Nordic" cuisine and is considered one of the best in the world, has been a standard-setter in many ways. Their continued culinary experimentation in the realm of pickling, fermenting, and preserving undoubtedly helped ignite a trend that is now commonplace in a certain kind of cheffy restaurant. Says Zilber: "There's definitely been a bubbling, frothing, fomenting movement of fermentation at restaurants around the world. Chefs are opening their eyes to the power and possibility of this technique, and what it can mean for your food and your creativity."
In 2014, Noma's head chef, René Redzepi, began a fermentation lab, creating a dedicated space for what had long been a core aspect of the restaurant's culinary identity. "In the early days of Noma, we were forced to get creative in the winter months," says Zilber, referencing Redzepi's dedication to using seasonal Danish ingredients whenever possible (easier said than done in the depths of January). "Now, we have a whole toolkit of flavors. Noma's food wouldn't be Noma's food without it."
Earlier this year, Zilber and Redzepi released a cookbook about what they've discovered, and rediscovered, during their work in the lab. "The Noma Guide to Fermentation" is an exceedingly thorough catalog of their experiments — the subtitle alone mentions "koji, kombuchas, shoyus, misos, vinegars, garums, lacto-ferments, and black fruits and vegetables" — providing easy-to-follow recipes that are replicable in a non-three-Michelin-starred kitchen. Some of the recipes are new, like lactofermented tomato water (for salad dressings and sauces) and a "mole" made with koji, a type of grain fungus. But many are rooted in millennia-old techniques and classic fermented foods from the world's great cuisines.
How does Zilber feel about the microbiome mania of late? "Do I think the fervor is a little hyped up? I do. But eating fermented foods, food made by hand, is always better than eating processed foods. And fermentation unlocks flavors you could never have otherwise."
Here, Zilber shares the fermentation techniques he admires the most, and his favorite ferments from around the globe.
"By far my favorite fermented food is this Korean chili-soybean paste," says Zilber. "Spicy, full of umami, savory, sweet... it's got everything going for it." Gochujang is made by fermenting chilis with powdered soy and rice — often for the better part of a year. Zilber likes to use it "stewed into some fried rice, in mayonnaise, over caramelized cauliflower, in stir-fries, and slathered onto steaks or chickens before they're roasted."
"I want to go to the Mammoth Steppe, in Mongolia," says Zilber. "It's not a tourist destination — people describe it as the last place on Earth that resembles the most recent ice age. And they do fermented yak milk." Arguably the country's national drink, airag — which is most commonly produced with horse milk — is traditionally fermented in a leather bag, and is similar in taste to kefir. Yak milk is also used for butter, which is sometimes allowed to ferment and added to tea.
Rice Wine Vinegar
"I love the taste of rice wine vinegar," says Zilber. "It's sweet, not too acidic, well rounded, and always has a floral bouquet on the nose (thanks to the koji that goes into making it)." The mild vinegar, made by fermenting rice until it becomes alcoholic, and eventually, acidic, is an integral — if unassuming —part of some of our favorite foods. For example, says Zilber, "good sushi rice is nothing without vinegar as the base of its seasoning."
Zilber says that this Ethiopian bread, made sour with the use of fermented teff batter, "is a favorite of mine, as it's a foodstuff that also serves as an eating utensil." As anyone who's had Ethiopian cuisine will know, injera is essential to the meal — and its characteristic bubbles, formed by the bacteria in the sourdough, are perfect for sopping up stews like shiro or wat. "I love the Ethiopian way of eating," says the chef — "communally sharing, grabbing, tearing, wrapping. There's something so connectable to it."
"I'm long overdue for a trip back to Japan," says the chef, reflecting on Noma's continued experimentation with miso and its various offshoots. The ubiquitous soybean paste contains only three ingredients — soybeans, salt, and koji — but it comes in a surprising number of different forms, ranging in color from cream to deep brown. At Noma, the team has developed methods of making miso-like condiments with ingredients like Danish rye bread, masa, split peas (this one they call "peaso," obviously), and pumpkin seeds (pictured above).
"Black garlic originated in Korea," explains Zilber. "It's not technically fermentation, but it does involve enzymes and aging." The process for making this striking ingredient is surprisingly simple, provided you have the right setup: you'll need to create a place for your garlic that will remain hot, around 140° F, for an extended period of time (the book suggests using a slow cooker). After that, it's a matter of letting your fresh garlic mellow for six to eight weeks, at which point a fascinating chemical process will have turned it into a creamier, fruitier version of its former self.
Chinese Fermented Tofu
Tofu is known for blending into the flavors around it — but in its fermented form, it becomes a saltier, more pungent food that can be used as a condiment. What is it, exactly? "It's a firm, dried tofu," says Zilber, "inoculated with mold and then submerged into a vinegar brine." That brine can be a vehicle for flavors from chili to sesame oil to shrimp paste. "Some people call it white bean cheese," says the chef, noting its creamy texture. "When I was 18, working at a fancy pan-Asian restaurant, we used to break it up and mix a little into our beef jus. It was cheesy, rich, and delicious."
Sure, this product is available in basically every grocery store in the country — but "even though it's a staple," says Zilber, "it's a super delicious and traditionally fermented hot sauce. In fact, the flavor of the hot sauce comes from its lactofermentation." Zilber notes that the sauce is aged in barrels for months — sometimes, even up to three years — producing the depth of flavor for which the sauce is known.
"The Noma Guide to Fermentation" by René Redzepi & David Zilber
To buy: barnesandnoble.com, $32