Both cucumbers and nasturtiums can be found in full production side by side in the garden, and they combine very well for a light tasty kimchee. Cucumber kimchee is ready to eat immediately and has a very short shelf life. It’s a quick and simple kimchee that is very refreshing and easy on the palate.
1 or 2 thin-skinned cucumbers, sliced.
1 small clove fresh garlic, crushed.
1 dozen or so green nasturtium seeds, crushed.
1 dozen or so nasturtium blossoms, whole.
1 T. plus 1 pinch of sea salt.
1 dash fish sauce.
1 pinch red pepper flakes.
1 dash kimchee juice, as starter.
Salt sliced cucumber with 1 T salt. Let sit for an hour or 2. Discard salty brine, rinse salt away using fresh water and drain of excess water. Add crushed garlic and nasturtium seeds, pinch of salt, dash of fish sauce, blossoms, red pepper flakes and kimchee juice and mix well. Pack in a sturdy jar and let ferment a few hours to overnight. Enjoy immediately or refrigerate to slow the fermenting process.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
At the end of May, Sandor attended the River Cottage Food Fair in the UK. This is a 55-minute video of his presentation.
“Fruit punch, with hints of pomegranate.”
“An exciting alternative to champagne.”
“Very fruity with the perfect sweet/sour balance.”
“Pairs well with chocolate.”
I served this drink to friends tonight, and that’s what they had to say about it. (Then I told them what it was.)
This odd ferment is the liquid reserved from boiling adzuki beans. I often cook beans to make either miso paste or tempeh. And I usually drain the beans and discard the liquid. Lately I decided to ferment this liquid (juice, water, not sure what to call it) as it seems to contain lots of flavor and solids from cooking the beans. I let the liquid cool, then inoculate it with a couple tablespoons of juice from a batch of kimchee. I put it in a growler and top it with an airlock.
This batch is 3 months old. Lots of solids settle to the bottom, and a fair amount of coagulate floats to the surface. And in between is clear delicious fruity drink.
There is nothing about this beverage that even hints of beans. It is amazingly light, fruity and delicious, which is surprising considering what it’s made of. (Serve with dark chocolate with almonds and sea salt.)
Takuan is fermented daikon radish. Packed whole in rice bran and salt and left to transform into one of the most delicate and luscious foods I’ve tasted. I know that’s a strong statement, but in my experience, radishes are anything but delicate. Delicious, but often with a strong bite and a bitter aftertaste. I expected a bit more crunch, but what I got was a softer texture, more akin to rare tenderloin beef stake. And then, a lingering sweetness, with just a hint of alcohol on the palette.
The process is all explained in Sandor’s latest book, The Art of Fermentation.
[A side note: I visited Sandor a year and a half ago, and while in his studio, I noticed a crock on the shelf with Takuan written on it. I inquired, and he opened it up and retrieved a pickle from within. After that first taste, I knew I’d be making a batch of my own.]
It’s a pretty simple process, and no chopping.
I purchased 80 lbs of whole tops-on radishes from a local food co-op. I washed them to remove sand, and then put them on boards in the direct sun for about 1 week. At that time I could bend the largest ones in a circle easily, and with no breaking.
I purchased and used pre-made pickling mix from a nearby Asian food market and followed the directions in Sandor’s book. I drank saké while I packed the crock, and occasionally splashed a shot or two in the mix.
To my amazement, the layers of radish and bran dropped nearly 6 inches under the weight of the block, and filled with brine. (I regret never tasting the brine, as it would likely by delicious.) Over the course of the year, the brine evaporated leaving a dark, somewhat sticky layer on the plate.
When I lifted the weight and plate, the tops of the radishes were still very much intact. I had expected a brown layer of sludge at best. But the old radish tops were there, very much looking like radish tops, and with the aroma of fresh humus, mowed alfalfa hay, and alcohol. They taste pretty good, too.
But the radish is really the gem in the crock: Very aromatic, golden nutty color, so wonderful on the palette, and so unlike the radish that I started with.
In addition to the great tasting pickle, in my research I learned that the Journal of Nutrition reports that Takuan has 7 times more vitamin B than fresh raw daikon.
Here’s the brand of pickling mix I used.
I had an excess of very ripe tomatoes last week. I diced about 3 pints (chop), and salted lightly, about 2 large pinches (salt), and then allowed it to ferment in a ceramic vessel (pack) for 2 days (wait). (Remember the four steps in a basic lacto-ferment? chop, salt, pack, wait.)
I stirred 2 or 3 times daily so the common mold that easily forms on fermenting tomatoes couldn’t get organized sufficient to colonize the top of the ferment. After 2 days I drained off the liquid. (I put the liquid in a bottle with a swing top lid and capped it. Though first I topped the bottle with some extra kimchee juice i had in the fridge. I’ll let this juice ferment in the bottle a couple weeks, then enjoy it as shots, or in a Bloody Mary cocktail.)
Fermenting the salsa longer than this would have reduced the chunkiness of the salsa, moving it more toward sauce, and I wanted chunky salsa.
I crushed a couple cloves of garlic, sliced a few scallions, and chopped a handful of fresh chervil, and stirred these ingredients into the salsa, in addition to some fermented hot sauce for heat. I then let it sit in the fridge a day before I enjoyed it. It’s bubbly, zingy on the tongue, and very delicious.
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)
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Last night I had short grain brown rice for dinner. I purposefully cooked too much so I could make a quick and delicious breakfast this morning. I first read about this process in Sandor’s latest book, though as I write this, I can’t find the page number.
I added two tablespoons of sweet garbanzo miso paste to the left over rice (just over 1 cup), and stirred thoroughly. I set the pan on the fridge for added warmth, and left it undisturbed until morning. (Higher heat speeds the process, and the koji enzymes can tolerate temperatures up to 140° F.)
Sweet miso paste has a high proportion of koji. During the night, the enzymes in the koji chopped up the starches in the rice and converted them into sugars. This morning the rice is noticeably sweet, and ready to eat as a breakfast porridge. (This also works with millet, oatmeal, buckwheat, or any starchy grain.)