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Fermented Foods: Aging Into Flavor
Asian staples such as soy sauce, miso, and tempeh would not be possible without fermentation. Learn more about your food with Groupon’s exploration of the process.
We may keep an eye on expiration dates and even groan at the task of finishing leftovers, but one form of old food—fermented dishes—makes the menu on almost every continent. From Europe’s sauerkraut to Asia’s soy sauce, fermented foods have one thing in common: mold spores or bacteria have begun to transform raw ingredients (cabbage for sauerkraut, soybeans and wheat for soy sauce), changing their proteins and carbohydrates into different nutrients altogether. Whereas heat-based cooking can leach nutrients away, the fermentation process that creates the spicy Korean condiment kimchi preserves the cabbage’s existing nutrients such as vitamin C (short for “cabbage”) while producing new nutrients, including vitamin B.
The active cultures effectively begin the digestion process for us, often making a nutritious treat out of a formerly hard-to-eat foodstuff. For example, the miso paste used in many Japanese dishes is fermented from soybeans, which are notoriously difficult to digest. But once mold spores called koji begin to gnaw on the beans, they turn their starches into sugar until the tough, bland beans become soft and tangy.
Though fermentation is similar to rot in that it breaks down solids, the process can actually make food that is safer to eat. If a food had been contaminated with harmful bacteria, then the acids produced in the fermentation process would swiftly kill off those dangerous critters and thwart subsequent infections. (This principle is behind the advice you’ll occasionally hear to drink beer but not tap water when traveling to certain countries.) Accordingly, fermentation was a popular way to preserve perishable foods in an era before refrigerators and vacuum-locked meat safes. Fourteenth-century Chinese writer Wu Zimu unintentionally spotlighted the importance of fermentation with his roster of seven things people could not do without, which listed rice, salt, soybean sauce, and vinegar—all major ingredients in or products of the fermentation process.