As scientists and researchers continue to make strides decoding the secrets of health, they’ve increasingly focused attention on the microbiome. In the depths of our guts are rich ecosystems of bacteria, fungi, and viruses which have influence over allergies and metabolic speed, as well as the digestive and immune systems. As everybody’s microbiome composition is different, there is no “miracle food” that will positively affect everyone in the same manner, but there is evidence that some fermented foods are beneficial for our gut health. All health benefits aside, many of these fermented foods have found favor in kitchens and specialty shops around Boston due to their often-striking flavor profiles and textures.
Fermented dairy, fruit, meat, grains, and vegetables have long-standing roots in every culture—we wouldn’t have wine, beer, or cheese without fermentation. Different fermentation agents produce different things, though; brewer’s yeast and the proper processing will result in beer, while lactobacillus (which can also be found in several beer styles) can ferment a crock of vegetables to make probiotic-rich pickles, or milk to produce yogurt and kefir. For those of us who enjoy sour and funky flavors, the bacterial genus lactobacillus (or lactic acid bacteria) more than delivers the pucker. Cabbage is an international favorite in the lacto-pickling game, with the most famous Asian example being the Korean staple kimchi. Napa cabbage and radish are typically the base vegetables that are layered with salt and fermented, while chili powder, garlic, and ginger impart their distinct flavors. You know a restaurant’s kimchi must be excellent if it’s right there in the name—Cambridge’s Kimchi Kitchen has been incorporating the eponymous ingredient into several of their dishes since they opened in 2015. Try the kimchi fried rice topped with the requisite runny egg ($8) or kimchi jigae, a rich stew comprised of their signature kimchi simmered with pork shoulder and tofu served with rice on the side ($12).
Another traditional fermented cabbage dish that’s made it to the mainstream is sauerkraut. With roots in central and eastern Europe, sauerkraut is simply shredded green cabbage left to ferment in a clean glass or ceramic vessel for at least a week. Once the lactobacillus naturally existing on the cabbage’s leaves does the job, the resulting sauerkraut is a tasty snack on its own, or the perfect complement to the house-made kielbasa at DJ’s European Market and Deli, located in the “Polish Triangle” in Dorchester. A large sub filled with their kielbasa and sauerkraut is priced at $6.15, enough to make your stomach and wallet happy.
If you like the idea of sauerkraut in a sandwich but you’d rather double down on the fermented foods than bring meat into the mix, head over to vegan/vegetarian wonderland Red Lentil on Mount Auburn in Watertown around lunchtime and get your twofer with their Tempeh Reuben ($9.50). With its origin in Indonesian cuisine, tempeh is made up of soybeans that have undergone a fermentation process that presses them into cakes which are then sliced and grilled or fried. Tempeh is not fermented using lacto bacteria, but rather inoculated with Rhizopus mold which lends a nutty and meaty texture and provides a solid base for Red Lentil’s tangy organic sauerkraut and vegan Russian dressing.
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Kombucha is the increasingly popular tea drink which employs yet another method of fermentation. The SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast) is the fermentation agent and converts sugar into various acids, enzymes, and vitamins. Although kombucha is celebrated as a health tonic, there is not much scientific evidence to support those claims—but that doesn’t seem to have affected its ascendant popularity. Sales of the sweet and vinegary drink, frequently flavored with fruit juice, are expected to hit 1.8 billion by 2020. With that kind of growth, it’s no surprise the brewed beverage is branching out of the health food store cooler and finding its place behind the bar. Portland’s Urban Farm Fermentory is one of the only commercially-available brands of kombucha in the Boston area which contain alcohol, even though it’s listed as a benign 1.5% ABV. It pops up in specialty stores which have beer and wine licenses, and can even be found on draft at a few spots, including Flatbread‘s Somerville location. Sip on a 16-ounce pour of UFF’s blueberry kombucha ($5) while bowling a few strings and you might as well be at the gym, you’re being so healthy (Their wood-fired large nitrate-free pepperoni and mushroom flatbread ($19) might negate that, but ordering one is highly recommended anyhow).
Boston fans of fermentation can even expand their education and palates at the 6th annual Fermentation Festival at the Boston Public Market, where they can sample elixirs in their Libations Garden, join the #KrautMob to learn how to make their own sauerkraut, and browse pottery by local artisans to use as vessels for home fermentation experiments.
Besides the examples listed above, there are dozens of other examples of fermented foods that have existed in cultures for thousands of years; they’ve brought us as a species this far, and as research advances, hopefully we’ll get a clearer picture as to how. In the meantime, lovers of funky, sour, nutty, earthy, tangy, probiotic-rich fermented foods can rejoice that there are no shortage of area shops, restaurants, and events to get their fermentation fix in.
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