Since the dawn of human history, people have been consuming fermented products such as food and drink. Sometimes, the fermentation was accidental, as when rotted fruit was devoured by a starving band of travelers, or intentional, as when their descendants figured out how to turn fermenting grapes into wine. Today, nearly all of the world’s cuisines feature fermented products made from dairy, meats, vegetables, and grains both for their health benefits and for their taste.
Fermented products in the dairy group include buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt, and cheese, products familiar to most Western consumers. In regions of the world where cow milk is less available, people drink kumis, which is made from the milk of mares, or shubat, fermented from camel milk. The lactose in milk is broken down during fermentation, which means those who are intolerant of milk sugars found in cow’s milk can enjoy fermented milk products. Probiotics that yogurt adds to the digestive tract help support a healthy immune system.
Many people enjoy a range of fermented meat and fish without realizing that is what they are eating. Salami and pepperoni, and their Latin cousins, chorizo and jamon, are examples. Fish sauce and shrimp paste, used in many Asian cuisines, are also fermented.
Germans love sauerkraut, Americans love pickles, and Koreans love kimchi. These fermented products feature cabbage, cucumber, radish, or green onion, which adds a sparkle of flavor to everything from bratwurst to braised beef. In Indian cooking, dishes are often served with lime or mango pickle as accompaniments. Pickling foods allows an extended shelf life; creative cooks often preserve summer’s vegetable bounty by fermenting green beans, corn, okra, and other veggies using vinegar.
Some of the earliest culinary writings refer to fermented grain beverages similar to modern-day beer. Other alcoholic beverages like whiskey, rice wine, and vodka began life as grains as well. Another common fermented grain product comes in the form of sourdough bread, made by adding lactobacillus cultures and sometimes yeast to starter dough.
Vegetarians as well as omnivores might add fermented soybean sauce, called tamari or soy sauce, to rice dishes, salads, or other foods. Miso, a Japanese bean paste, is made from fermented soybeans as well. Another fermented bean product is called tempeh; sold in savory cakes, its meatlike texture makes it perfect for frying, baking, or boiling.
In addition to fermentation’s ability to preserve foods for long periods and add zip to the fragrance and flavor of foods, there are other benefits. Those who consume fermented foods point to protein enrichment, vitamin support, and increase in essential amino acids as reasons to add pickled or alkaline fermented foods to the diet. Fermented foods travel well, can be stored unrefrigerated, and require little or no cooking, too.