Tips on fermenting your own foods and two recipes for fermented foods

Connie Chew’s home is filled with all sorts of fermented food.
Connie Chew’s home is filled with all sorts of fermented food. PHOTOS: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
Ingredients should be massaged together with clean hands, as opposed to using gloves.
Ingredients should be massaged together with clean hands, as opposed to using gloves.PHOTOS: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
Fermented green papaya Thai-style somtam.
Fermented green papaya Thai-style somtam. PHOTOS: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
Sambal belacan kimchi.
Sambal belacan kimchi. PHOTOS: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

(THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Connie Chew’s tiny little kitchen is a veritable Aladdin’s cave of fermented food.

From her refrigerator, she unpacks fermented tamarind, mushrooms, fish guts, salt, tempeh and natto.

“Here, try some,” she says, ladling some fermented mushrooms onto a spoon. The stuff is delicious.

A visit to the equally tiny storage area behind her kitchen reveals shelves lined with more fermented food.

Chew is a former image consultant who is also a passionate foodie. She has participated in numerous television shows including the Asian Food Channel’s Foodie Face-off 2013 in Kuala Lumpur, where she emerged the winner.

Over the past few years, her interest in fermentation has burgeoned and, as a result, she has emerged as something of a local font of knowledge on the subject.

Her love of fermented food began when she was a child, as her dad loved eating local fermented food like belacan (shrimp paste).

“I didn’t understand what it was at that time. I only knew that something so simple was so delicious. My father used to say that the smellier it is, the better it is,” she says, laughing.


Connie Chew’s home is filled with all sorts of fermented food. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK 

A few years ago, Chew started making her own fermented food after taking a trip to Thailand and learning the basics of fermentation from Canadian fermentation guru Lance Hancherow, who taught her how to make fermented beverages like kombucha (a fermented black tea) and sauerkraut (fermented cabbage).

She supplemented this knowledge with a trip to Japan where she learnt even more from Japanese fermentation experts like Kureha Shokudo.

“I realised that the fermented food in Japan is very delicious and it’s quick. You do not have to keep it for too long, so that’s when I got hooked on making a lot of Japanese fermented food and also Korean fermented food,” she says.

Since then, she has gone on to give classes on fermentation in KL for those interested in fermenting at home. She also has a Facebook page on the subject called Crazy Asian Ferments.

She is not alone in her interest in home fermentation. Fermented food has become one of 2018’s biggest food trends, with some even calling it a superfood.

So what is fermentation exactly? Historically, fermentation was used as a technique to preserve the shelf life of food before the advent of refrigerators.

In countries like South Korea, vegetables were fermented in autumn to ensure people could get access to vegetables during the harsh winter months. Many people there even have dedicated kimchi refrigerators.

According to nutritionist Jo Lewin in an article on BBC Good Food, fermentation happens when “micro-organisms such as bacteria, yeast or fungi convert organic compounds – such as sugars and starch – into alcohol or acids”. This is done in anaerobic conditions, which essentially means the absence of oxygen in the environment.

In vegetables and fruit, this conversion produces lactic acid, which enhances the natural beneficial bacteria in food, known as probiotics. It is this probiotic element which has been credited with improving gut health.

In his book, The Clever Guts Diet, Dr Michael Mosley writes: “One of the reasons fermented foods are so good for the gut is that, gramme for gramme, they contain a huge number of different microbes. The microbes in fermented foods are also far more likely than most other bacteria to make it safely down into your colon because they are extremely resistant to acid, having been reared in an acidic environment.”

The book echoes the findings of a 2006 article in the Journal of Applied Microbiology, which reports that consuming probiotics can improve intestinal tract health and enhance the immune system.

Examples of fermented food are aplenty and range from yogurt and sauerkraut to miso and drinks like kefir (a priobiotic cultured drink) and Kombucha.

But according to Chew, there is a world of difference between the Western notion of fermentation and the Eastern one.

“From what I’ve observed, the Western world is very focused on probiotics, whereas over here, it’d be what makes our food delicious in South-East Asia. Our fermented food stuff will be like belacan, cincalok, fermented squid, tempoyak. All these stuff are very smelly. With Thai food, almost every dish has got fish sauce or fish broth, which will put you off when you smell it, but when you put it into the food, it makes it taste delicious.

“For me now, I like to do more Asian fermented food because there is a priobiotic element to it and also the umami taste,” she says.


Ingredients should be massaged together with clean hands, as opposed to using gloves. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

If you are planning to ferment food at home, Chew says hygiene and sanitation are paramount. She washes all her utensils and ingredients in pH2.5 sodium hypochlorous acidic water before using them and washes her hands with the same water before handling the food.

For people who do not have access to this water, she advocates washing hands in natural vinegar and sterilising all utensils in boiling water before using. She also says when massaging the ingredients with salt, it is generally best to use clean hands.

“Some people use gloves – especially when making spicy dishes like kimchi, but when you use gloves, you’re actually disconnecting from the microbes. There’s actually bacteria in the hands, which is encouraged, so try not to wear gloves when you’re making fermented food,” she says.

Other useful tips for making fermented food include using very fresh fruit and vegetables, avoiding iodised salt or table salt in favour of sea salt and using purified water to ferment.

Chew says there is also a difference between the way food ferments locally and Western countries.

“The Western world is different because it takes a longer time for their food to turn sour. For us, if you’re not careful, once it’s left to ferment for more than one day, it starts to become sour. And if you continue to leave it outside, it will turn very sour and won’t be edible,” she says.

For people who are concerned about the high amounts of salt required to brine vegetables for the fermentation process, Chew encourages eating fermented food in moderation. “I think, unfortunately, there are some people who treat it as medicine. For me, I wouldn’t treat it like a religion, like you have to eat it every day,” she says.

Incidentally, salt is necessary in fermenting vegetables as there is an elevated risk of harmful bacteria like botulism proliferating without the aid of salt.

Ultimately, Chew says making fermented food at home requires patience and a passion for making it in the first place. “There is no shortcut, you have to be very patient. It’s almost like you’re engaging with the mould, yeast, microbes and having a connection with them,” she says.


Fermented green papaya Thai-style somtam. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

FERMENTED GREEN PAPAYA THAI-STYLE SOMTAM

Tools

1 litre Mason jar, sterilised with either hot water, alcohol, natural vinegar or pH2.5 water

INGREDIENTS

Salt 

1 young papaya (about 600g), shredded and massaged with Shiokoji or sea salt (1.5 per cent salt ratio to shredded papaya)

1 carrot (about 100g), shredded

For pounding together lightly

3 garlic cloves

5 small dried chillies

30g dried shrimp

5 to 6 long beans, cut into 2cm length

1 medium size tomato or 8 cherry tomatoes

For seasoning

2 Tbs good quality fish sauce (Nam Pla)

1 Tbs Thai fermented fish broth (Pla Ra) (optional)

2 Tbs grated Thai palm sugar

1 Tbs Thai lime juice

1 Tbs tamarind juice

METHOD

1. Massage salt into clean papaya and leave aside for one to two hours. Liquid will soon seep out of the vegetable. Squeeze out the water until the papaya is totally dry.

2. In a large clean bowl, mix papaya, carrot, pounded ingredients and seasoning together with clean hands. Stuff and compact the mixture in jar. Make sure to leave a gap between the topmost point of the vegetable and the bottle cap.

An anaerobic environment is absolutely essential in fermentation. The green papaya must be completely submerged underneath the liquid (which the vegetable will release when it ferments) for the lactic acid bacteria to proliferate. This is also important for protecting your ferment from unwanted bacteria (or mould). Fermentation weights (a chunk of green papaya or a piece of ginger) wedged on top of the mixture can help keep your ferment submerged. Seal the jar loosely with its lid.

3. Leave to ferment for 24 hours before moving it into the refrigerator. If you prefer your vegetables more sour, leave to ferment at room temperature for two days before transferring to the refrigerator.

Serves five to six


Sambal belacan kimchi. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

SAMBAL BELACAN KIMCHI

Tools
1 litre Mason jar, sterilised with either hot water, alcohol, natural vinegar or pH2.5 water

INGREDIENTS

For mixing together

Napa cabbage (about 1 to 1.2 kg)

¼ cup sea salt

For blending together

6 red chillies, deseeded

30g belachan, toasted

30g galangal

80g tomatoes

50g cooked rice

1 Tbs fish sauce

2 Tbs cincalok

4 garlic cloves

1 tsp white sugar

For adding to the kimchi

1 carrot (about 100g) shredded

½ white radish (about 200g), shredded

1 stalk spring onion, chopped

1 stalk lemongrass, cut finely (take only the bottom 7cm to 10cm of the stalk)

5 pieces kaffir leaves, shredded very thinly

Few pieces laksa leaves, shredded very thinly

¼ stalk torch ginger flower, thinly cut

METHOD

1. Rinse and prepare cabbage. Cut cabbage into bite-size pieces and place in mixing bowl. Add salt and gently massage salt into leaves. Cover with cling film and set aside for at least three hours or overnight, folding once or twice. At this point, water will be released from the vegetable.

2. Rinse the cabbage at least thrice, then squeeze out excess water and put in a dry mixing bowl. Add the blended ingredients and the rest of the ingredients and fold until the cabbage is evenly coated with paste.

3. Pack kimchi down tight into jar, leaving a gap between the kimchi and the bottle cap. Place a weight (core of napa cabbage or a piece of ginger) on top of the kimchi to keep it submerged in the liquid (liquid released from the vegetables). An anaerobic environment is absolutely essential in fermentation. The liquid protects the vegetables from the aerobic organisms that grow on the exposed surfaces. Seal the jar loosely with its lid.

4. Place the jar on the counter top in normal room temperature (tropical climate) for 24 hours. After 24 hours, open jar to release gases - it should be stinky. Then reseal and store kimchi in fridge.

Serves five to six