Inspired by a recent stomach bug, I ventured into a full-on fermentation frenzy at home. How can a stomach bug “inspire” me? Well, read on. And toward the end, I’ll share my easy recipes to make health-boosting fermented foods in your own kitchen.
I sometimes get wrapped up in the if/then illusion...
that if I do everything that I am supposed to (eat right, exercise, meditate...or at least say that I’m going to meditate), then I will avoid any illness and essentially live forever. If I can just find that right type of fish oil, find the perfect crossfit gym, or encounter my personal guru, then my strength will double, I’ll access the other 90 percent of my brain, and I’ll finally write that novel. Bottom line: I’ll settle for simply feeling younger.
Imagine my dismay last week when I came down with a stomach bug. “Why me?” I cried. “This shouldn’t be happening! I just went to yoga on Sunday! I had a really good shivasana! How can I be sick?!” Absurd as it sounds, part of me really thinks the infectious microbes in my gut should have “cared” about my diet and exercise regime: “Ooh,” they would say upon reaching my intestines, “You did yoga? Well, I do apologize, good sir. I shall take my leave at once.” (Somehow my pathogen has a very proper British accent.)
Of course, this fantasy is far from the truth.
And yet...my bad bug’s intimate connection with my gut (this thing hung around for five days or so), made we wonder how I could placate it. Then I remembered: a few days prior to my ordeal, I was talking to my good friend Joe about both of our strange eating habits that we think make us healthy. With a sparkle in his eye only reserved for truly magical things, he mentioned that he’s spent much of his year fermenting food.
I’m no stranger to fermentation—about 10 years ago when my kombucha obsession nearly broke the bank, I started to brew it at home. My wife and I also make a mean kimchi, and even had a successful run with hard cider a few years ago. We’re accustomed to strange smells coming from jars and vats in our kitchen, but we’ve let it fall out of fashion in our lives (somehow House of Cards just felt more important). Joe’s excitement reinvigorated my own and I gave my tummy a pat, assuring it that I would nurse it back to 100 percent health by letting vegetables slowly turn sour and then eating them.
My stomach responded with a reluctant gurgle.
I set out on a mission to hold my own fermentation festival at home. I’m not alone in craving this kind of party for the digestive tract. Fermentation Fests are attended by droves in certain well-cultured circles (and I fully intended that pun, with no apologies). Denver has a festival this fall. So does Reedsburg, Wisconsin, and Boston, and Portland (no surprise there). Multiple cities in California including San Diego and Sonoma plan them, too. Sonoma’s was founded by Michael Stusser, head of Osmosis Spa and the founder of Green Spa Network. These things are everywhere! And Los Angeles just announced their first fermentation festival! Stars, fancy cars, and sauerkraut now go together.
Sandor Elix Katz, mustachioed, self-proclaimed “fermentation revivalist” and author of “Wild Fermentation,” holds the heavyweight title in the home fermentation world, and gives a pretty stellar introduction to the benefits of allowing a fruit or vegetable’s natural bacteria and yeast to break down our food and load it with more bio-accessible nutrients. He waxes poetic about how fermented foods add more “good” bacteria, those probiotics that everyone talks about, to your microbiome, making your system more biodiverse and better at handling foreign pathogens. Research backs this claim up with findings of higher antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties, gut-strengthening properties, increased nutrients, weight loss and improved metabolism, and even reduced anxiety. And all that research hit the news in the past month!
Still, it’s worth it to step back a few years for a broader perspective: here’s a nice synopsis of some touted health benefits of fermented foods from a Washington Post article back in 2012.
With new research emerging about the importance of the gut-brain connection and how ‘what we eat’ can affect our brain chemistry, it’s time for Wellness Warrior to hop on the fermentation bandwagon. We’ll call our efforts “Fermentation Fridays.”
Let’s start with a few details of my own private fermentation festival.
Start simple. Try this great way homemade “soda” (note: this is non-alcoholic) that has probiotic benefits. I like this recipe to make a starter “ginger bug” by Jennifer McGruther, author of “The Nourished Kitchen,” and a further explanation in Splendid Table of how to make the drink once you have your starter.  Here’s my ginger bug in action with more sugar and grated ginger at the ready.
If ginger beer is like a familiar sweet friend to you, then beet kvass is your strange beety-eyed cousin. Added salt aids the fermentation and gives it a briny taste that some people really enjoy.  The ingredients couldn’t be simpler: beets, salt, water, but here’s a recipe from Cultures for Health to help you measure a few things.
The nice thing about fermenting foods is that you don’t have to do much work.  It’s all about creating the ideal environment for naturally occurring bacterias and yeasts, standing back, and letting them do their thing. Sandor Katz has a great recipe.  In the case of sauerkraut, most of the work comes when you crush up the cabbage, then mix it with salt to help it release its water. If you use your fist, it’s a great way to get out any pent up aggression.
After a good beat down, you simply pack it into a crock or big jar, add a weight on the top to keep the cabbage submerged, and let those microbes go to town. Here’s a photo of my kraut jar about two days in. Look closely and you can see the bubbles released by fermentation. The pink on the bottom is from a small red cabbage that I threw in there.
Kombucha is a delicious beverage. Other’s think that it tastes like vinegar. It took me a few times to get accustomed to it, but now I drink it everyday when it’s available. It just makes me feel like I’m digesting everything more efficiently. The recipe is pretty simple and here's a nice recipe from Cultured Food Life.  It starts off with making sweet tea.
Then it gets a little weird. The trick to kombucha is adding a special kombucha culture, also known as a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of yeast and bacteria). Some people refer to this as a “mother.”  It looks like a flat jellyfish pancake and it feels like one, too—not the most appetizing thing in the world, but it gets the job done. These are available online at places like Cultures for Health, Nourished Traditions, Get Kombucha.com, or you can usually find someone around who has a surplus of them (everytime you make a batch of kombucha, the mother grows a baby, so you end up with two).
The final trick is adding the mother  to the tea and then letting the microbes turn the sugar into nutrients and probiotics.
Kimchi might be the most adventurous of these recipes. Its flavor is complex thanks to its multitudinous ingredients, and I think it is good with practically everything—breakfast, lunch or dinner. Making it is almost exactly like making sauerkraut. Here's a nice variation on Sally Fallon's recipe which uses the traditional napa cabbage.  Here are most of my starter ingredients.
Then I found some baby bok choy  and spring onions that seemed eager to join...
I made a paste out of the ginger, onion, garlic and chilli. I like to use a food processor,  but some people prefer to chop by hand...
The final mixture can sit for almost as long as you want.  Here’s mine sitting in a crock. I ended up throwing some carrots in there too. Typically two weeks is a good amount of time, but depending on the temperature, some people let it sit and ferment for several months.
And then... the prep for my fermentation festival was complete! Three days later, I was drinking beet kvass with delight, and after two more days I began to eat the sauerkraut. I’m now obsessed! I’ve been adding sauerkraut with delight and excitement to every meal, and drinking sips of beet kvass throughout the day. My tummy is 100% better, though I can’t necessarily attribute that to my creations. I feel like I’m prepared to resist any future onslaught.
The most exciting part of eating these foods that I’ve fermented in my own kitchen is the transformation of the produce itself. It’s like looking into a window on the past AND the future: a place where the natural and ancient processes of microbial action drove so much of our human existence, and are being rediscovered today. It’s the very existential—and very tangy—umami of life itself!
Read more about the benefits of fermentation and let's connect next week on #FermentedFriday!