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FERMENTING FOOD: Kraut, kimchi, kefir and kavass - the new health food



Time was, most people had a little fermented food in their everyday diets, whether it was a sour dill pickle from barrel at the local grocer or a side of sauerkraut bubbling in a crock of cabbage in the cellar.

This stuff was created with very little fanfare — the excess harvest combined with salt and left in a cool place to do it’s thing, the salt drawing the moisture from the vegetables and the friendly pro-biotic bacteria in the air turning the whole thing into a sharp, vinegary pickle, the classic foil for hearty winter meals.

Fast forward 50 years and pickled foods fell out of favour, at least in North America, deemed too salty for a healthy diet and industrialized to the point that natural fermentation is not even part of the process.

But old-fashioned sauerkraut is sexy again. And in today’s the shoot-to-root world of locally-minded cooks, a pickle is not just a pickle — it’s a way to preserve the organic harvest and develop a powerhouse of probiotics, functional foods that can be an antidote to our over-medicated, sugar addled, antibiotic-resistant world.


Since Sandor Katz penned The Art of Fermentation, arguably the bible of these bubbling brews, it seems everyone is getting into the act – from NOMA’s celebrity chef Rene Redzepi in Copenhagen to Momofuku’s David Chang in New York. In Redzepi’s Nordic Food Lab they play with Lactobaccillus to create Finnish viili, kefir and lacto-fermented plums, while for Chang it’s koji, the fungus that ferments grains to create soy sauce and miso.

Things are bubbling away closer to home, too. Vancouver's Scratch Fine Foods makes its own naturally-fermented hot sauce, chili paste and mustard, while David Gunawan’s vegetable-forward menu at Farmer’s Apprentice includes tasty ferments like his own kimchi.

Lunch at Victoria’s Nourish Kitchen, is a feast of fermentation, too, with something freshly pickled on nearly every plate, from the addictive cashew cheese, to pickled radishes and rhubarb flavoured with turmeric and ginger, and the fuchsia ribbons of turnip, fermented in beet brine, stacked atop the kale Caesar salad.

And at The Rock Bay Market a business that began with creative kombucha has morphed into all things fermented, living preserves ranging from mixed curry vegetables and hot sauce to pickled sea asparagus, fermented japaenos and caraway beet kraut.

There’s literally a pickle in every pot.


Recipes for DIY fermented grape soda, lacto-fermented pickles and kimchi began popping up in magazines like Bon Appetit and Saveur, and all over the Web.

I first learned about fizzy kombucha from Alexander Pony, her kitchen filled with fizzy kombucha, kefir water and naturally-fermented radish, carrot and beet pickles, designed to sell at local markets and at cooking demonstrations around town.

“This is the SCOBY,” explains Pony, holding out a slimy disk, looking a bit like a waterlogged Portobello mushroom, that she’s scooped out of her jar of fermenting kombucha tea.

A celiac who turned to fermented food to help her digestion, Pony says kombucha was her “gateway” to the world of fermentation.

“I started brewing it when I was living in San Francisco,” says the California native, “and I just felt so much better.”

Unlike pickles made with “dead” commercial vinegar, her pickled carrots and radishes are alive with the microbes plucked from the air in her Saanich home, tiny bubbles rising to the surface like champagne when you open a jar of fermented radishes and beets, or carrot sticks, standing in a bubbly brine.

“The longer you wait, the more it ferments, eventually turning to vinegar,” she says offering a lightly-pickled carrot that has effervescence alongside the crunch.

While many foods will spontaneously ferment in a salted brine when exposed to air (think cucumber pickles and sauerkraut), some require the addition of living bacterial cultures like the kombucha SCOBY, the milk kefir grains that ferment milk products, or the water kefir grains that work in sweetened water. It’s merely a matter of feeding the starter a sugar of some kind, and soon it will be working away, creating acidity, CO2 and those healthy probiotic byproducts.

Some, like sauerkraut simply require salt – it draws the moisture from the shredded cabbage and, once submerged in salty liquid, acidifying bacteria in the air turn the water into vinegar and the cabbage into kraut in just a few weeks, Add daikon radish, garlic, ginger, green onions, chilies, fish sauce or powdered kelp to your ferment, and you have kimchi.

“I like to tell people that many ferments are considerably easier than baking cookies,” adds Dean. “You don't need to be a scientist to make sauerkraut.”


I’ve always said I can survive on fermented foods – beer, wine, bread, cheese – add kraut and kimchi and you have all of the essential food groups.

As it turns out, these really are essentials. Adding living fermented food to your diet, populates your gut with the kind of flora that help your digestive and immune systems run smoothly.

Kombucha fans claim it’s glucoronic acid binds with toxins to detoxify the body, while lactic acid increased oxygen in the blood, and acetic acid balances the body’s pH.

During the fermentation process, sugars and carbohydrates break down, converted to the unique acidity you’ll find in naturally fermented vegetables or even meats like salami, and making some foods easier to digest. Historically, fermented foods kept people alive — the Vitamin C in sauerkraut kept Captain Cook’s crew healthy on their long voyages.

There are all kinds of health claims attached to probiotics. Though there’s not a lot of science to back them up, the popularity of probiotic products continues to boom.

Many processed foods advertise their probiotics, but you need to look for labels that list “live active cultures” to derive any heath benefits. Once pasteurized, cooked or dried, it’s unlikely you’ll find any useful probiotics. Look for live cultures in yogurt, apple cider vinegar, kefir and other fermented foods.

And if you’re worried about food safety, don’t, says Pony.

“We’re trying to demystify the scary world of fermented foods,” she says.

When fermenting at home, make sure food is fresh and fermentation vessels are clean. Vegetables that are sealed in a jar, submerged in a brine of salted water (1-3 teaspoons of sea salt per litre) will ferment slowly in two to three days, she says.

Lactic acid fermentation actually inhibits the growth of many pathogens.

But molds can be toxic.

“It there’s a white film on top, it’s gone off. You can tell.”


I first encounted a kombucha tea café in Maui, the Maui Kombucha Brewery producing the sparkling sour tea in Haiku, a hippy surfer community far from the major resort areas. Along with juice cleanses and yoga retreats, it’s the place to try “booch”, served in a varieties of fizzy flavours alongside their raw vegan menu.

Kombucha has roots in ancient China but is now bottled across the country, sold as a natural alternative to soft drinks. Tonica Kombucha in Toronto got a boost from CBC’s Dragon’s Den and is now distributed across Canada, in flavours from ginger to green tea, mango and blueberry. It’s the same story with Montreal’s Rise Kombucha, sold in major supermarkets. They even sell their Kombucha Mama starter kits for fermenting the drink at home.

And from those early beginnings, kombucha has spread, to become a popular drink across the country.

Cultured Kombucha in Victoria is a case in point, with cans and "fill stations" at local Fairway and Red Barn markets, and popular flavours ranging from Citrus Ginger to Nettles and Petals (with rose petals), Elderflower Rose, Blueberry Jasmine and Strawberry Hibiscus. They also offer premium small batch releases from their shop in Rock Bay, kombucha brewing kits and classes, and cocktail and mocktail recipes.

Kefir, the fizzy fermented and drinkable yogurt, is also easy to spot in the supermarket — and you can buy the grains in most health food stores to turn milk into kefir on your counter in a couple of days.

But it was at Nourish that I first encountered kefir water. It requires a different kefir grain and the addition of cane sugar to start the ferment, and can be flavoured with herbs, spices and fruit, their latest infused with lavender and lime.


Hoping to add some probiotic food to your daily diet? Here's a good place to start.


Fermenting cabbage is dead easy, whether you make standard sauerkraut or kimchi (see variations, below). You can also use less salt or substitute seaweed (or dulse) for some of the salt, though salt is necessary to keep vegetables crisp.

1 head cabbage, cleaned and shredded

2 tablespoons sea salt

1 tablespoon caraway seeds (optional)

Chop or shred cabbage into a big bowl and sprinkle with salt (and spices, if using). Massage or pound with a tamper until the cabbage is limp and begins to release juices, then pack it into a clean, wide-mouthed jar. Press or tamp it down until the liquid rises above the solids in the jar. If necessary, top your fermented vegetables with a brine made with 1 cup of water and 1 tablespoon of sea salt. To keep the contents submerged, use a small canning jar or bowl that just fits inside the mouth of the jar.

Cover loosely, set in a pan (to catch any overflow), place it in a cool place, and wait.

Fermentation will begin almost immediately - slower is better for both flavour and crunch. If you see foam or even white mold on top just scrape it off. This can take a week or up to a month. If it’s too hot, the sauerkraut will ferment too fast and tend to get soft (and spoil) so find a place that’s about 65˚F for fermenting.

Taste the kraut from time to time and when it’s sour enough for you, it’s time to refrigerate. Refrigerated, the fermented vegetable can keep for a year but are usually best within six months.

Sauerkraut (or choucroute in France) pairs with sausages and smoked ham, cutting the richness and aiding digestion. Try a kraut and Montreal smoked meat (or smoked tofu) Reuben sandwich on toasted rye bread, or a grilled pork sausage with sauerkraut on a crusty bun.


Kimchi: To the head of chopped cabbage, add 2 grated carrots, 1 cup daikon radish, 2 Tbsp. grated ginger, 3-4 cloves garlic and ½ tsp. chili flakes or 3-4 hot chili peppers, then pound with 2 tablespoons sea salt to release juices and ferment like sauerkraut.

Cortido: To 1 head chopped cabbage, add 1 cup grated carrot, 2 sliced white onions, ½ tsp. chili flakes and 1 Tbsp. dried oregano, pound with 2 tablespoons sea salt to release juices and ferment like sauerkraut.


This is the perfect combination to have on hand for Vietnamese-style sub sandwiches or Asian rice bowels.

1 pound carrots

1 pound daikon radish

1 tablespoon sea salt

1 tablespoon coriander seeds, crushed (optional)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger

Shred the carrots and daikon using a grater or spiralizer (or use a knife or mandoline to cut them into sticks).

Combine vegetables with salt, coriander and ginger in a bowl and massage to release juices.

Pack vegetables and juices into a wide-mouthed jar, pressing down with a wooden tamper (or your fist), until enough liquid is released to cover them, (top up with salt brine – 1 tbsp salt dissolved in 1 cup water, if necessary). Use a smaller jar set inside the mouth of the large jar to keep vegetables submerged.

Cover loosely and set aside to ferment for about a week, scraping off any scum that rises to the top, then refrigerate for longer storage.


You can use roast chicken or barbecue pork for this Vietnamese-style sub sandwich. The secret is the crunchy fermented carrots and daikon.

1 cup fermented carrot and daikon (see recipe)

two 6-inch lengths of fresh baguette, split (or two crusty sub buns)


6 ounces grilled or roasted chicken or barbecue pork, sliced

thin slices mozzarella cheese

1/2 English cucumber, sliced into thin lengthwise strips (use a vegetable peeler for nice ribbons)

1/2 cup finely sliced white onion (1/2 an onion)

2-3 chopped fresh chilies (serrano are good)

large handful of cilantro

Make the fermented carrot and daikon (below).

To assemble the subs, split the baguettes lengthwise and slather each with mayonnaise. Top with chicken and cheese and put on a baking sheet. Slide under a preheated broiler and broil for 1-2 minutes, just to toast the bread and melt the cheese.

Top each sandwich with half of the fermented carrot and daikon, strips of cucumber, onions, chopped chilies and a handful of cilantro sprigs. Press bread together to enclose and wrap base in parchment or waxed paper to keep everything inside while you eat. Makes 2 sub sandwiches.


Crunchy fermented kimchi and gochujang pepper paste make a cool bowl with Korean flavour. Preserve the healthy probiotics by never heating kimchi and other ferments.

1 cup finely chopped kimchi (see recipe)

2 tablespoons juice from kimchi ferment

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 tablespoon Korean gochujang (pepper paste)

1 tablespoon miso paste

2 teaspoons sesame oil

2 tablespoons lime juice or mirin

1 teaspoon fish sauce (optional)

4 cups cooked rice noodles or short-grain sushi rice, chilled

1 medium cucumber, julienne or sliced

4 radishes, sliced

2-3 green onions, in 2-inch slivers

1 cup chopped roasted chicken or baby shrimp (or 4 soft cooked eggs)

1 sheet toasted nori, sliced or crumbled

1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the kimchi, kimchi juice, sugar, gochujang, miso, sesame oil, lime juice (or mirin) and optional fish sauce.

Cook noodles until tender but firm, then drain and rinse in cold water to chill.

Add the noodles (or cold rice) to the bowl, along with the cucumber, radishes and green onion, and toss to combine.

Divide the mixture between deep, individual serving bowls. Top each bowl with some of the roasted chicken or shrimp (or a warm, soft-cooked egg). Garnish with nori and sesame seeds.


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