Photograhy: Cáit Fahey

Time passes, things rot. Especially food. Food loves to rot. Bananas go brown, cucumbers get soggy, bread grows mould, meat goes rancid and milk sours. It’s quite hard to get excited about this irreversible alchemy from a culinary point of view, but in the right hands, the rot is what you want.

Rot is a colourful word and inspires much revolt, so when we’re talking about rotten food which we plan on eating, we call it fermentation. That’s digestible but still not all that enticing. How about a few fermented foods we already eat and drink, to make ourselves feel a little better about it: cheese; yoghurt; beer; wine (all alcohol in fact, though I would be over-embellishing the list by naming off all the booze), bread, olives, gherkins, chocolate, salami, coffee, vinegar and soy sauce to name a few. The secret ingredient that connects these products is time. Time passes, food ferments.

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At a very basic level, fermentation is the inhibition of certain food-spoiling bacteria using salt, while promoting the growth of other bacteria (which happen to be good for your health. I note here that this is purely coincidental. I have no time for ‘health foods’ and neither should you).

I first fell in love with rotten food after reading an article by Grace M. Cho in Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies. Cho is a Korean-American writer whose mother came to America with her GI husband following the Korean War. When Cho’s mother first arrived in the States in the 50s, she couldn’t stomach western food. She lost weight and became miserable and disassociated from her culture and identity. She was an alien in a new world, desperate to claim back something familiar and comforting to help her cope. Her coping mechanism was Kimchi.

Kimchi is a funky, sour, smelly mash of fermented cabbage, carrot, daikon, ginger, garlic, fish sauce, chilli and onion. It stinks. Sometimes it’s fizzy. It can be crisp and fresh or squidgy and swampy. And it can simply be glorious.

Cho’s mother started a Kimchi collective, whereby her and other adjusting Korean women would make long trips to pick up baechu, the cabbage used for Kimchi-making and other elusive essential ingredients. They would make huge batches together and take home a share each to last them for months at a time. It was their link to home and that which got them through difficult times. As the effects of the Korean war kept unfolding, and the horrors of the country’s civil war and split became apparent, there was a push for adopting Korean children orphaned during the war by American families. The children were plucked from obscurity and planted into a different world. They were suffering from shock, depression and isolation. Cho’s mother expanded her Kimchi collective to include these displaced children. She would go to homes all over the American North West, fermented memento in hand, essentially becoming a Kimchi counsellor.

 

Sauerkraut-Kimchi

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The way Cho wrote about the importance of this single fermented product in a culture gave me the fermenting bug. I followed it down the rabbit hole and rotted all I saw. A good place to start if, you’re into it, is Sauerkraut. Sauerkraut, another fermented cabbage of European extraction requires no skill, little patience and gets you excited about creating small colonies of bacteria in your home that turns raw food into a completely different thing with the passing of time. A simple sauerkraut of white cabbage, black pepper and caraway is a favourite of mine but here’s a recipe for a sauerkraut-kimchi hybrid that’s bright purple and tasty AF:

– 1 small red cabbage (shredded)
– 2 carrots (grated)
– 2 Beetroot (grated)
– Salt – 1.8% of total weight of vegetables
– Ginger (however much you like – about 80g or less or more, it’s your call.)
– Garlic (again, as much you as like – about half a head peeled, in my case)

  • Slice cabbage into thin strips. This is best done by quartering a whole head of red cabbage, cutting the stalk out of each quarter. Splitting, with your hands, the quarters into manageable sized pieces and then cutting into strips with a knife.
  • Peel carrots and beetroot and grate them on the roughest side of your grater.
  • Blitz garlic and ginger together in a food processor or stick blender. Don’t bother peeling the ginger, the skin is grand and full of flavour and fermentation softens everything. You can add some water and soy sauce to help it blitz smoother.
  • Combine everything in one bowl and weigh it.
  • Work out 1.8% of the total weight of the veg in salt, and then add that amount of salt to said bowl.
  • Massage it all. Massage is the word that most people use but you can bash it up. Take something heavy, like a pestle or end of rolling pin and smash the cabbage mix. The veg will start releasing all of it’s liquid because of salt and leaving cert biology and osmosis.
  • Stuff the cabbage mix into clean jars. Really pack it in, until the liquid rises above the top of the cabbage.
  • Leave them out and let some time pass. After about 3 days and you’ll see life forming. The bacteria in the cabbage are going to start producing acid and carbon dioxide, so it’s becoming sour and gassy.
  • Burp the jars every so often. That is to say release the pressure of the gas that has built up. It stinks. It’s gorgeous (At this stage I like to to think of it as a bastion of Farts and Culture).
  • After about a week, weather dependent, as these bacteria grow best in warmer weather, your kraut should be suitably sour. You can move it to the fridge to slow down the fermentation process and hold it at the sourness you like, or you can leave it out and see it change and live and grow and breath. Also your call.

If purebred Kimchi is your poison, Maanghi is fab. She’s great for all things Korean food related:

Fermenting is primarily a means of preservation. It gives food that would otherwise spoil a long, fruitful life. If you’re going away on holidays and your concerned with all of the vegetables in your fridge, shred them, weigh them, add 1.8% of the total weight of vegetables of salt to them and pack them in jars. When you get home you’ll be in for a surprise. Should the water from the vegetables not cover them completely, add some salted water. Again, 1.8% salt is ideal, but as a rule of thumb, taste it, and if it’s somewhere close to sea water salinity, you’ll be fine. Make sure the veg is completely covered by the water as everything below the surface ferments and everything above the water level may spoil. If there’s any spoilage or white mould growing on top, just lift it off, discard it and eat everything else. Once you’ve got you head around this process, you can start rotting more things.

 

Kombucha

I next moved onto Kombucha. I’ve been a lifelong fan of fizzy drinks and tea, so a fizzy tea was an attractive next step. Brewing kombucha is an opportunity to really get to know about the colonies of bacteria. They become your pets. They need to be fed and cared for and in return, they give you tasty things to drink or eat. When you go away for a few days, you have to give them enough food to last otherwise your “mother” will die to be explained in due course).

Kombucha is a strange thing. It originated in China thousands of years ago, where presumably someone left a cup of sweet tea out for a long time, a scum grew on the top, and some brave or curious person decided to drink the cup’s contents. To make Kombucha you need what’s called a “mother”. That’s the scum that grows on top of the tea. The mother is a kind of SCOBY (Symbiotic Community of Bacteria and Yeast) which is not too far removed from a jellyfish in appearance and biological makeup. It’s slimy, thick, unattractive and almost extra-terrestrial. It doesn’t look edible and doesn’t look like it should be anywhere near your food, let alone nurtured lovingly.

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The mother starts out life as a thin white sheet. I’d love to tell you these can be picked up cheaply online, but that’s not the case. Most people come to attain a mother by knowing someone willing to share one of theirs. You add this thin white sheet to sweetened tea, and as the mother eats the dissolved sugars, it expels carbon dioxide and acetic acid as byproducts. This gives you a fizzy, slightly sour drink. Honestly, on your first try, you probably won’t like it. It’s got notes of vinegar and a faint, indescribable funkiness. Having said that, I hated beer the first time I tried it and I’m not alone. All of these fermented flavours, wine and coffee included, are acquired tastes. Once you do acquire it however, a world of interesting concoctions opens to you.

Kombucha is the flag-bearer Mother Earth, health nut, obnoxious ferment which is ruining fermentation for the rest of us. I’ve come across many articles with people detailing how they eat the mother to aid digestion, mix it into a paste and using it as anti-ageing cream, claim it reverses effects of cancer and other diseases. Examples of such intolerable ‘buche-bro brewers are plentiful. Quite simply, Kombucha is delicious and that should suffice for your reason to drink it.

By way of contrast, here is someone great making it completely inoffensively:

With every batch you make, your mother will propagate another layer, which unfortunately isn’t referred to as a daughter (literally, just a mother from another mother). It’s a process of trial and error but has limitless potential. You can flavour your kombucha however you like. If you’re into fruity drinks, add fruit. If you like savoury, try adding fennel or thyme. I once tried to ferment coca cola and add cherries to that instead of buying a can of cherry coke. It wasn’t good, but neither is cherry coke.
Here’s how I make kombucha:

  • First, make some sweet tea (forgo the milk). The tea should taste sweeter than any reasonable sweet cup of tea but the mother is going to eat quite a lot of that sugar.
  • Allow the tea to cool and add the mother to the tea. Cover the jar you’re using with a clean jay cloth and an elastic band to allow the air to get at it but stop debris finding its way in there.
  • The aim is to taste it every day. As the mother eats sugar and produces acid, you’re tasting it to find the balance where you like it.
  • Once you’ve found the balance you like, decant your kombucha, removing the mother and move it to the next batch of cooled sweet tea.
  • You’ll start a continuous cycle of brewing and find you’ll be drinking a lot of kombucha. You can add fruit juice, frozen fruit, herbs, spices whatever you want at this stage, but move the liquid to a sealed container.
  • An old clean milk jug or water bottle is fine. Close the lid and wait a few more days. This is the stage where the kombucha is getting fizzy as the gasses build up.

The whole process should take about 5-7 days.

This definitely isn’t a 30 minute meal, fermentation requires time. You invest a lot of in it, and when the results aren’t good, it can be heart-breaking. But when you stumble across something that works so well you can’t believe it hasn’t always been in your life, it’s amazing. My most recent find was ginger bug fermented cucumber juice.

 

Catching the Fermenting Bug

A ginger bug is a bit like a kombucha SCOBY but much easier to find or make. Keep you ginger shavings and peels over the next few week and add them to an uncovered jar of sugary water. Before long you’ll have a fizzing active community of bugs, fermenting all they touch. You can add this to a cooled sweetened ginger infusion (which is where ginger beer comes from!) or to any liquid and see what happens. Add it to apple juice, lemonade, sugar water or some juiced cucumbers, add some sugar and let it get to work. After 3 days, the fizzing will have begun. You can seal it in bottles to keep the fizz. (Incidentally, you now have gin’s best friend. Tonic is auld tat compared to this.)

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You could go delve deeper into the world of fermentation and start looking at rice koji. This is mould that grows on cooked rice the converts starches to sugars, sweetening naturally what previously wasn’t sweet. You could add koji to a rice porridge, incubate that at 60 degrees overnight and in the morning you’ll have a sweet, malty mess called amazake which when you taste it is like seeing a new colour. A flavour you never knew existed appears out of seemingly nowhere.
If you’re not all that into your amazake, you could leave it for longer, allowing it to sour and ferment the sugars that were previously starches and then you could have some sake. Yeah that’s right, sake. You could add rice koji to blitzed soya beans or chickpeas or barley and leave it in salt for a year and then miso would happen. Coolest of all though, you can grow rice koji on chicken skin or marinate fish and it will convert the starches to sugar, making everything more complex and more delicious.

Complex koji craic may be a little out of your reach at present, but start working your way up to it. Sour some ‘kraut, brew your own beer or a bug. It has always been my hope to dispel the “fresh is best” myth and give credit to rot. Some things in this world take time and cannot and ought not be rushed. Fermentation is an art which takes practice, perfecting and time – sweet, sour, fizzing burping, bubbling time.


Illustration: Sarah Moloney