Molded Corn Starter for Chicha in Costa Rica

A highlight of my recent visit to Costa Rica was seeing first-hand how the indigenous Bribri people there prepare a molded corn starter for making chicha, a corn-based alcoholic beverage. Chicha is most famously prepared in the Andes mountains of South America by chewing corn in order for the corn to become saturated with salivary amylase enzymes, which break down starches into simple sugars fermentable into alcohol. I have made chicha in this way and published information on how to do this in my books Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation. I had heard from travelers to the Andes that much of the chicha available there today is produced not by chewing corn but instead by malting (sprouting or germinating) corn, as barley-based beer is made. Germination also produces enzymes that break down starches into simple fermentable sugars. Then, a few months ago, when I first met Costa Rican environmental and seed activist Fabian Pacheco, he told me about this chicha made using a molded starter.

There are the three ways in which people around the world break down complex carbohydrates into simple sugars to ferment into alcohol: malting, molds, and chewing. Each of the three methods accomplishes the job. Chewing is generally regarded as the most ancient method, in contemporary use in a few different regions that I have heard about, scattered around the world. The Western tradition of beer making relies on malting, as do African sorghum beers and some Central and South American corn beers. Molds are used throughout Asia, in varied forms with names including chu, koji, marcha, nuruk, ragi, and nearly infinite local variation. Though the use of molds to make alcoholic beverages (primarily Aspergillus molds, but the traditional mold cultures are generally biodiverse) is widespread across Asia, I had never heard or read of their use in any tradition elsewhere. That is, until I met Fabian and he told me about the use of molds by the Bribri people near the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica for making their version of chicha. Fabian invited me to come to Costa Rica and took me to meet his Bribri friends, who showed us how they make this molded corn starter that they call oko in their language, and is known in Spanish as mohoso, which translates as “moldy.”

Fabian brought me to Finca Loroco, a diversified organic farm and educational center, run by his Bribri friends. The oko was already in process, being made by Mauricia Vargas, the mother of the family, in keeping with tradition around the world in which women have been the brewers. As Mauricia explained it to me, dried kernals of (starchy) corn had been soaked in water for three days. Just before our arrival, the soaked (and thus already fermenting) corn was ground into a thick paste, like a masa dough for tortillas or tamales. We participated in the next step, placing handfuls of this dough into large leaves of a plant they called bijawa (genus Calathea). Each mass of dough was wrapped like a tamale, except in two leaves. The technique was to fold the stacked leaves in half, in order to break their spines in the middle, then form the mass of dough into a rectangular shape on the stacked leaves, roughly 6 inches/15 cm high by 3 inches/7.5 cm wide and ½ inch/1 cm deep. (I did not measure, these are my estimates, and the masses varied quite a bit in size.) The important thing is that the mass be small enough to fold the leaves around them and completely enclose them.



Dough made by grinding soaked corn, bijawa leaves for wrapping it, and cooked, wrapped corn masses.



Mauricia Vargas wrapping corn dough in bijawa leaves for making oko.


The corn dough wrapped in leaves were then cooked in a big pot, most of them covered with water, but the ones at the top steamed rather than boiled. They were cooked for about an hour, then removed from the pot, and left to spontaneously ferment and mold. We did not stay for the entire fermentation period, but as Mauricia explained it to us, the wrapped corn is left undisturbed for four days. On the fifth day, the leaves are opened and the corn masses are removed. Then the leaves are turned over and the corn masses are rewrapped, with what had been the outer surfaces of the leaves in contact with the corn mass. This brings different leaf surfaces into contact with the corn mass, exposes everything to air (molds need oxygen), and seems to help to evenly distribute mold formation. After four more days, the mass is partially dried in the sun, then rewrapped, again flipping the leaves to vary surface contact. Finally, after four more days, the moldy masses are dried in the sun and ready to use or store until use.



Wrapped corn masses cooking on the fire.





Mauricia Vargas and her family, along with Fabian Pacheco, my wonderful host in Costa Rica who took me to meet them.


I participated in the initial wrapping stage only and was sent off with a couple of the wrapped corn masses to age as they described. When I first examined the corn masses after four days, mold growth was patchy. By color and by smell, I could recognize some of the mold as Aspergillus mold like those I have grown many times on rice and barley to make koji. But it showed green mold as well, indicating more than a single type of mold. Four days later, mold covered most, but still not all the surface. Some of the molds were long and hairy and clearly were sporulating. I did not remain in Costa Rica long enough to complete the process or make chicha with the oko, nor did I dare try to bring it home with me, to complete the process or send it to a lab for analysis.



Molds growth after four days.


Mold growth after nine days.


Even in this one family, there are many ways of making chicha. Most are made without the moldy oko starter. We had delicious (and strong) chicha made by removing the steamed and cooled corn masses from the leaves (without the molding process), mixing them together into a paste in a bucket, allowing this paste to ferment in a solid state for several days, then adding water and sugar and allowing the liquid to ferment for a few more days. We were also served a chicha made by adding steamed bananas to the corn paste, allowing that to ferment in a solid state, then mixing that with water immediately prior to serving. They also described chicha made with cacao and corn. Clearly chicha is not a single uniform product but rather a range of corn-based beverages, some only mildly alcoholic, others stronger. The chichas prepared without the moldy oko require sugar or bananas for fermentable simple sugars; the oko is necessary only for chicha made from just corn and water, so that the amylase enzymes from the molds can break down the starchy corn into fermentable sugars.

Due to the fact that I was not there long enough to see the process in its entirety, along with the limitations of our communications and translation, this is certainly not a comprehensive or definitive account. But because nothing (that I have come across in the English language literature) has been written about this, and because of its apparent uniqueness in the Western hemisphere, I thought it was important to share this information, incomplete as it may be. Was this practice the result of an accidental discovery, as so many fermentation processes are, with similar molds developing on grains here as across Asia? Or was there perhaps some past Asian influence here, long forgotten? The origins of fermentation practices are always shrouded in mystery. But over and over we see patterns repeated, with microbial phenomenon manifesting similarly (and at the same time uniquely) in disparate locations. Molded grains for alcohol in Central America is very exciting.

Romanian Fermented Whole Cabbage Process

I received an email from Scott in Michigan, with photos and a description of the process of fermenting whole heads of cabbage, as he observed it in Romania. See below for photos.

“I was dating a Romanian girl a couple years ago, which was my first introduction to good living. Our trips to the mountains and our visits to relatives of relatives who quite literally lived by their own two hands, and wasted nothing, changed my whole world view.”
“This is a series of pictures her mother sent me of her method for making ‘Romanian sauerkraut’ or Sour Cabbage. It’s made this way so the leaves remain whole for wrapping the Christmas ‘sarmale.’ A traditional Christmas staple of pork and cabbage. Absolutely amazing results. The best fermented cabbage I’ve ever had by far. I ate so much of this the months I spent there.”

“I do not know the exact herbs but they are not exotic, and the odd looking fruit is quince … the others are obviously horseradish and normal corn. They use the spigot to release the liquid created at regular intervals. The core of the cabbages are removed, then packed with salt… It is weighted down with 2 wood slats and a stone, then covered with the lid.”

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Report from the MAD Symposium, NOMA, and more….

I spent last Friday to Tuesday in Copenhagen, Denmark, where I was invited to speak at the third annual MAD symposium, mad being the Danish word for food. The MAD Symposium is organized by NOMA, the renowned Copenhagen restaurant famous for innovative use of foraged (and fermented) foods, and frequently cited as the best restaurant in the world, run by chef René Redzepi. Though I do not typically follow the international restaurant scene, I started paying attention to Redzepi after he tweeted about my book: “THE (nerdy) food book of the year! Are you ready for microbes crawling on your food?”

First order of business after my arrival was dinner at NOMA. No menu (until we left, as a souvenir), just small course after small course, each accompanied by wine, so I have no confidence in my count for the evening of 28 courses! I couldn’t write fast enough to both document them all and eat them, and I have my priorities. Virtually every course was a sensation of flavor and texture. Most were fairly simple, with some extremely clever twist. For instance, “Nordic Coconut,” which was a kohlrabi, with a hole bored in the side, and the center hollowed out and filled with lightly fermented kohlrabi juice, and a “straw” made from a hollow plant stem. (Sorry you have to scroll down for photo)

"Nordic Coconut" at NOMA

“Nordic Coconut” at NOMA.

“Blackcurrant Berry and Roses” was essentially black currant fruit leather formed into hollow balls, filled with fermented cream, garnished with rose petals and elderflowers, and served on a bed of wild greens.


“Blackcurrant Berry and Roses” at NOMA.

There was fried moss, and flatbread covered with grilled rose petals, pickled and smoked quail eggs, pickled pine leaves, crackers with caramelized milk and thin slices of cod liver, and sourdough crackers with sea urchin and fried duck skin. Perhaps the most gorgeous dish of the night was listed on the menu as simply “Berries and Grilled Vegetables.”


“Berries and Grilled Vegetables” at NOMA.

Many of the courses included unusual stocks, including rhubarb root stock, fennel juice, or the juice pressed from lobsters. Several dishes were seasoned with ants. Ferments were featured in many of the dishes, including cream, pine needles, pears, cherries, and more. With the exception of the wines, as far as I could tell all the food included in the meal was prepared from locally grown, foraged, or sourced ingredients. Many of the dishes were served (and explained) by the chefs, including Redzepi himself. All in all, it was an extraordinary dining experience, and inspirational in demonstrating how extremely simple ingredients can be fashioned in such amazingly creative ways.

Saturday was an outing for the symposium speakers and organizers, to the island of Bornholm. The destination was a surprise. We piled into a bus, which took us to the airport, we got on a small plane for a half-hour flight, and into another bus, which took us to a restaurant (Kadeau) overlooking a gorgeous beach on the Baltic Sea. The chefs among us collaborated on an improvisational dinner, while the rest of us boated, swam in the sea, drank, and got to know one another. The dinner was incredibly delicious, I met fascinating people from faraway places, all with fermentation stories to tell, and then we were whisked back onto the bus, the plane, another bus, and back to our hotel.

Sunday and Monday were the symposium itself. About 600 people gathering under a big tent. The theme was “guts,” in all the literal and metaphorical meanings of the word. We speakers were implored to “say the things that you’ve never dared say before.” The opening was dramatic. When the doors opened, there was a dead pig hanging from a chain, suspended over the stage. The first speaker, Italian butcher Dario Cecchini, walked onto the stage to loud AC/DC and gutted the pig before speaking about his life as a butcher and the necessity of accepting the odor of death. He left the intestines on the rustic log that was a podium, and when my turn to speak came, there was nowhere to place my notes except directly upon them, as I discussed gut bacteria!

Speakers included climate scientists, farmers, foragers, scientists, artists, filmmakers, authors, and lots of chefs. My friend Michael Twitty, an African-American Jewish gay food historian, addressed the topic of culinary justice. The great Vandana Shiva spoke about seeds, patenting life, GMOs, and challenged chefs to take a stand. Cookbook author Diana Kennedy, who is a dynamo at 90 years old, dismissed sous-vide cooking and challenged chefs to get real about sustainability in their practices. My talk about gut bacteria and fermentation was well received. Many of the talks were great, but the highlights for me all involved meeting people. By coincidence, at the same moment, two Colombians who did not know each other, one living in Denmark, the other a culinary student in Spain, approached me with copies of my book to sign. I talked fermentation with chefs from Poland, Finland, South Africa, New Zealand, and many other locales. The lunches were fantastic. One was prepared by a group from Beirut (Lebanon) farmers market Souk el Tayeb; the other by the amazing New York and San Francisco restaurant Mission Chinese. The symposium was really fun for me.

The day after the symposium, I made a pilgrimage to the NOMA test kitchen, and the loosely affiliated Nordic Food Lab. NOMA test kitchen director Lars Williams showed me their technique of fermenting in vacuum-sealed bags, effective at keeping oxygen out and avoiding surface mold, but inevitably bloating from carbon dioxide and occasionally bursting.


Apricots fermenting in vacuum-sealed bags in the NOMA test kitchen.

The Nordic Food Lab is in the harbor right next to the restaurant, in a houseboat. Ben Reade (head of R&D there) and his team kept pulling out interesting things for us to taste. Some notable ferments included unripe plums fermented in a brine that tasted like olives, and garum (Roman fish sauce) from pheasant and rabbit. Beyond ferments, they are doing lots of work on edible insects, and figuring out how to make insect-based foods acceptable to western palates. When Diana Kennedy showed up, she started cooking us Mexican-style grasshoppers, lovely and delicate with a light lemon-garlic seasoning, served alongside a fiery chili sauce.

Diana Kennedy cooking grasshoppers while talking with Ben Reade.

Diana Kennedy cooking grasshoppers while talking with Ben Reade.

My favorite moment was when a male chef one-third Diana’s age tried to tell her how to do something, and she gave him a look that cut him down to size and shut him up. Staff lunch at the test kitchen was refreshingly down to earth, centered on roasted celeriac and potatoes.

Since those heady days of chef superstars and food porn, I’ve been settling back down to earth, returning to my grind teaching fermentation workshops, at the Copenhagen House of Food, a rural intentional community called Friland, and tomorrow at a farm and cooking school called Fuglebjerggaard. In Denmark, as everywhere, there is a hunger for practical information on fermentation.

Searching for Koji in Paraguay

I received the following email from William Mathis, a Peace Corps volunteer from the U.S. serving in Paraguy who is also a fermentation enthusiast:

For some time I have wanted to try my hand at fermenting my own miso, but have not for one reason or another. Now, as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Paraguay I have plenty of time to pursue endeavors of fermentation, even the most time consuming like miso. However, despite the many blessings of life in the South American countryside, the availability of Japanese products, knowledge of fermentation practices, and ingredients are not exactly common. I knew that tracking down koji here would not be a simple task, but I still wanted to try.

After a few months living out in the far east of the country, I discovered a small community called Colonia Yguasu, home to Japanese immigrants and their descendants, only a thirty-minute bus ride from where I live. I figured that if there were anywhere to find koji in Paraguay, it would be there.

On my first attempt to find the elusive koji I went to the Japanese grocery store and began asking around. I saw a group of middle-aged Japanese ladies shopping for produce. I approached them and asked if they or anyone they knew made their own miso. The women were slightly baffled and quite a bit amused that a young, obviously foreign young man would be asking them about a practice that only their grandmothers had undertaken. Basically, they told me, they were sure some old ladies in the community still made their own homemade miso, but they were not sure who or how to find them. They directed me instead to a Japanese cultural center nearby for more information. I went and inquired at this Asociación Japonesa, but the staff there had basically the same reaction: surely there are people, old women, who make miso, but we do not know how to find them.

On my next trip to the colony I was having lunch at a Japanese restaurant and asked the owner, who had served a delicious miso soup, if she knew where I might find someone who makes their own miso as I was interested in making it myself. At first she said no, she did not think anyone did, and then she changed her mind. “Yes,” she told me. “There is still one woman here who makes miso. Her name is Señora Seki and she sells it to the grocery store in town.” She wrote down the name for me on a small piece of paper and also gave me the name of the supermarket’s owner to whom I should inquire. After lunch I headed to the grocery store, intending to talk to the manager about this Sra. Seki. But before I did I noticed in the refrigerator in the far back of the store a package with a simple label that read “Homemade Miso” and listed a phone number below. After purchasing it and leaving the store, I immediately called the number and spoke with a woman who said that it was her mother who made the miso and that while she was not currently in town, would be happy to meet me another time. Finally, I had tracked down the source, the last woman in Paraguay to make miso, and my last chance at finding koji.

Later that week I headed back to Colonia Yguasu and called the woman, Miriam, again. She met me in an old Toyota pick up truck and drove us out of town down a long dirt road. I felt like I was meeting a rare, mythical creature, a kind of miso unicorn. Miriam introduced me to her mother and left us to talk. Her name is Hiroko Seki and stands just over five feet tall, with large glasses and was carefully bundled up in numerous layers on this rainy autumn day. A widow, she lives alone about a kilometer down the road from her daughter’s farmhouse. We spoke for a long time about her life and family, getting to know one another a little bit as we sat on a set of miniature chairs on the patio. After a while she looked at me with a curiosity in her eyes and asked, “So you want to learn how to make miso?” She then led me through a long discussion of how to make koji and miso, and then showed me the room where she has about seven 200L barrels of miso in various stages of fermentation. At the end of our meeting she asked if I would like to try her food, an offer I eagerly accepted.

Hiroko Seki with a bag of her homemade koji.

Hiroko Seki with a bag of her homemade koji.

I have adopted her method, which is usually for a 200L batch, for a 20L bucket or crock and want to share it. It is as follows:

5 kilos soy

3.5 kilos salt

3 kilos koji

Wash the soy and leave to soak overnight in water. The next morning cook until it is soft and then grind up into a paste, saving the water used to cook the beans. Mix the koji in the soy water and add 3.3 kilos of the salt. Put this mixture into the crock or bucket. Then cover this with a CLEAN cloth. On top of the cloth she puts a bag, like the kind that onions are sold in, filled with clean stones to weigh down the miso mix. This makes sure the weight is evenly distributed and full across the container, without having to find a plate or top that is the perfect size. Cover this with another cloth. After 3-4 days she removes the top cloth and the stones and adds the remaining .2 kilos of salt on top of the lower cloth, replaces the weight and the upper cloth and then covers the whole thing with some kind of plastic, fastened tightly around the outside with a rope or something to keep it in place and keep any bugs or other cultures out.

This recipe is essentially the same as that found in Wild Fermentation, except for a few slight differences, such as the bag of stones for weight, that I thought were interesting. Plus it is always great to hear the specifics of a technique developed through time and tradition!

Fermented Mushroom Condiment

I received this email from a fermentation experimentalist named Amber, about a mushroom condiment she fermented:

I thought you might find interesting a project I did last summer. I was trying to figure out a substitute for soy sauce. With it being mushroom season and me being
highly influenced by the constant fermentation projects happening at my house, I thought a fermented mushroom sauce could turn out really good with a similar flavor to soy sauce.


I harvested big bags full of hawks wing mushrooms. I thought their savory flavor would be adequate. I’m interested what flavors other mushrooms would bring to a sauce. I added fresh ginger, garlic, seaweed, and maybe horseradish. and poured a salt brine over it. I used some extra brine from some pickled beets I had going.


It turned out amazing!! Very much the flavor I was hoping for. It would have been closer without the beet juice added, but it definitely couldn’t be considered lessened by it. My brain/stomach is going crazy imaging how the same combination would taste if I was using Lobster mushrooms instead of hawks wings!

Bold Experiments in Vegetable Fermentation

This past weekend I taught a workshop at the Rowe Center in Rowe, MA. One of my students, Sasha Kellner of Ithaca, NY repeatedly blew my mind with her creative experimentation. First, she pulled out dehydrated sauerkraut, which she had made to salvage a batch that had started to get mushy. The dehydrated kraut (with apple and hops!) was crispy and delicious, like a probiotic answer to potato chips.



Then she pulled out more flavors: sunchoke (pre-cooked)-cabbage-caraway; vanilla bean-mustard seed-nasturtium; apple-cabbage-carrot-rosemary. All were delicious and distinctive.


Here’s to bold experimentation!

From Russia, with Love, Solodukha and Ryazhenka

A letter from Russia with recipes for two new ferments I haven’t heard of before…

Dear Sandor,

Firstly, I really love your books, and thank you for helping keep traditions alive!

I have a recipe to share with you; I am from Russia, I grew up in the countryside, on what was basically a farm, and my family have a huge lore of recipes passed down generations (including a sourdough starter that predates the revolution…!)

It is a porridge known as Solodukha (from the word ‘solod’, which means ‘malt’ – the word ‘solod’ itself, in fact, basically means ‘sweet’) My granny often made this porridge for me, and its especially comforting on a chilly morning.

malted (sprouted, dried & roasted) rye, ground fine, around 50 gr per person
water, about 150 gr
1 tsp sourdough starter (preferably rye-based)
a few tablespoons squashberries (according to wikipedia, that is the english equivalent of kalina – a small red berry from the genus ‘Viburnum’) – if you cannot find these, raspberries or fresh ripe red currants work well too.
1/4 tsp salt

Grind the malted rye to a fine powder, add the water, salt, and starter, and leave in a warm place for at least 8 hours. Once fermented, stir in the berries, place in a clay, ceramic or cast-iron small pot, cover with the lid and cook overnight in a very low oven; for the last hour or so take off the lid. Or make a bain-marie in a slow cooker and cook on low overnight.

My granny would always put this into the Russian stove before bed, hot from a days’ baking, and the porridge would cook in the slowly falling heat. if I beat my granddad to occupying the top of the stove for the night, I would wake up to the aroma of roasted rye and berries wafting up from below…

Serve it with plenty of good, yellow butter, and a glass of fresh, or soured, creamy milk, or ryazhenka (recipe follows…)! Enjoy!

Here is also a recipe for ryazhenka, a fermented ‘baked’ milk.

Place fresh, creamy raw milk (I’m sure you know to stay away from the stuff labelled ‘milk’ in the supermarket…!) in a heavy, cast iron pot, cover with a lid and place in a very low oven overnight (not higher than 110 Celcius, lower if your oven can). In the morning you should have a beige to light-brown, slightly nutty smelling milk with a ‘skin’ on top – you can eat the skin now, or, if you can resist, leave it in for now! Once cooled to blood temperature, add a tablespoon of raw soured cream. Put in a very warm place (or in a thermos flask!!!) for about 8 hours, or till thickened and soured. If you left the ‘skin’ in, it will be deliciously chewy…*wipes drool from keyboard*


From Russia with love
Milla :-)

Bill Mollison’s Ferment and Human Nutrition

We are thrilled to be able to offer for sale copies of Permaculture founder Bill Mollison’s 1993 book on fermentation, which was out of print for many years. Published in Australia, the books cost $50 (a lot less than what it was going for online after a few years out of print, over $800). To purchase a copy, click here. This was the book that began Sandorkraut’s fermentation education, now expanded and revised. Topics covered include:

  • Storing, Preserving and Cooking foods
  • Fungi, Yeast, Mushrooms and Lichens
  • Grains
  • Legumes
  • Roots, Bulbs, Rhizomes
  • Condiments, Spices and Sauces
  • Agricultural Composts, Silages and Liquid Manures
  • Fruits, Flowers, Nuts, Oils and Olives
  • Leaf, Stem and Aguamiels
  • Marine and Freshwater Products, Fish, Molluscs and Algae
  • Meats, Birds and Insects
  • Dairy Products
  • Beers, Wines and Beverages
  • Nutrition and Environmental Health

In Mollison’s own words: “All the recipes given herein are traditional; they belong to humanity, even though they have been collected or tried by various authors, they have all been used for centuries by thousands of human beings. Only a few recipes are my own inventions (you may guess at these) but even these derive from my family or friends in their main ingredients or procedures.”

To purchase the book, click here.