Words by Stephanie Yeap
Fermentation, a cornerstone of food cultures across Asia, is enjoying a revival in contemporary cuisine thanks to chefs who have taken it upon themselves to carry on the tradition.
*This is an extract of an article that first appeared in Wine & Dine’s 2020 ‘Food & Wellness’ issue
While the likes of kombucha and kimchi have become popular all over the world in the past few years, many of us have grown up with fermented foods in one form or another – from the fiery tang of achar and belachan to the buttery umami of miso and natto. And that’s no surprise, considering large civilisations and indigenous communities across Asia have cultivated the process of fermentation over the centuries. Consuming and preparing fermented foods comes with a whole slew of benefits too: the process creates strong, tangy flavours while ensuring a long shelf life, and, best of all, contains probiotics that vastly improves gut health.
Fermentation in the Asian context
Fermenting has long been a cornerstone of culinary traditions across Asia. Communities rely on the process to preserve and increase the longevity of fresh produce prior to the creation of modern technology. This ensures a steady supply of food throughout the year, no matter how harsh the climate or season. While Asia spans numerous regions, countries, and cultures, there are a couple of key traits shared by fermentation practices across the continent.
One of most defining features is the use of natural, spontaneous fermentation in preserving fruit and vegetables. A paper in the Comprehensive Reviews of Food Science and Food Safety published in early 2020 defines this as a lack of starter culture, instead the fermentation process revolves around the food commodity slowly maturing to create alcohol and organic acids. These products are behind the unmistakable tang and pungent aroma of fermented fare, with lactic acid being the most prominent natural preservative. Key dishes made with this method include the essential Korean fermented cabbage dish kimchi and gundruk, a fermented leafy green staple from Nepal.
On the flip side, there’s the use of starter culture, where the intentional introduction of microorganisms – think yeast and bacteria – kickstarts the fermentation process. Countries across East and Southeast Asia boast their own variations of starters to create national or regional foods including alcohol and bread. While starter cultures are commonly associated with dairy products such as yoghurt and cheese, these products tend to be less popular in East Asian countries due to the reduced access to animal-based agriculture, especially when compared to the likes of India and the Middle East.
Each East Asian country has a long track records of integrating its own distinct starter culture in their drinks and condiments. In China, qū is the cornerstone of many a Chinese alcoholic beverage like beer and bai jiu, which has can be traced all the way back to the Shang dynasty. Korea has equally historic roots in fermenting starters, having produced nuruk since the 3rd century C.E. The grain-based starter forms the basis of drinks such as soju and the refined rice wine, cheongju, as well as ganjang (soy sauce) and gochujang (chilli paste). In a similar vein, kōji mould very much defines Japanese cuisine. It primes grains for sake, soju, rice vinegars and ferments soybeans for miso and soy sauce. Perhaps unsurprisingly, biochemistry researcher Eiji Ichishima of Tohoku University deemed it a “national treasure” in the Journal of the Brewing Society of Japan in 2006.
The equivalent starter culture in Southeast Asia is known as tapai, the sweet-sour result of traditionally fermenting rice or starchy foods in large, wide-mouthed tapayan jars. It can produce a number of distinct dishes, depending on how long it’s been fermented for, and is so versatile that it’s an essential building block for cuisines across the region. You’ll find tapai at traditional ceremonies in Indonesia, such as marriages or the birth of a child, or consumed casually as a snack, while fermented rice remains a popular staple in the Filipino dishes, such as in puto (steamed rice cakes) and burong isda (cooked rice and raw fish fermented with salt and red yeast rice). It’s worth noting that each ethnic group tends to have their own takes on these dishes, only testifying to how diverse cultures across the region are.
*Read the full article in Wine & Dine’s 2020 ‘Food & Wellness’ issue. Available at newsstands and Magzter