OPINION
OPINION

Fermented Fad: Boosting Immunity, Naturally

There is general agreement that fermented foods are the next big thing. In fact, fermented foods are at the confluence of two current powerful trends — the increasing demand for natural foods and growing popularity of immunity-boosting superfoods.

According to trade journals, the global market for just one fermented product Kombucha Tea was approximately $1.7 billion as of 2019. This tea is prepared with black, green or white tea, flavoured with flowers like hibiscus, jasmine, fruits herbs and spices like ginger or mint. Attractively packaged in 250 ml bottles the ‘refreshing and reinvigorating’ beverage is priced from ₹120 to ₹250 a pop.

Chefs are excited about exploring uncharted territory that gives them a chance to show their creativity and restaurant owners are happy to ride the big rising wave that is bringing in health-conscious millennials to their tables. From cocktail canapes to desserts fermentation is casting its magic spell.

Just before the COVID pandemic hit us and threw life out of gear, modern fermenters had already started creating fizzy bubbles in India. Trendy eateries like restaurants Olive Bar and Kitchen in Mumbai, Delhi’s Greenr Cafe and FabCafe had started organizing fermentation workshops to raise awareness and sustain interest in kombucha and kefir, sauerkraut and much more.

Bengaluru was the first to come up with India’s first ‘fermentary’ called Kobo, an e-shop dedicated to selling ferments only. Qualia in Mumbai relied on its rich repertoire of fermented foods at the time of its launch.

The craze for probiotic drinks and other fermented superfoods is building up once again as we resume life if not after then with COVID. Kombucha, Kimchi, Kefir, Doogh and Sauerkraut from distant lands are available and appear irresistible.

How easily we forget that the process of fermenting was well known to our ancestors who used it to enhance the shelf life and improve the taste of what they consumed. Pickles, cheeses and wines are all fermentation’s gifts.

Fermented foods have long been a part of the traditional Indian diet, especially in rural areas. In Gujarat it is dhokla and in the southern states of India idli, dosai and appam are prime examples of fermented breakfast items. In the east in Bengal and Orissa pantha bhaat aka pakal is slightly fermented rice (cooked the night before and soaked in water) is considered the perfect light meal during the summers. Buttermilk-based dishes are many- Kadi, Kulu, Mor Kuzhambu, etc.

Fermented dishes are prepared with cereals and lentils, milk and dairy, vegetables and fruits. Sweets like jalebi are prepared with fermented batter and Gundruk is immensely popular in Sikkim where the farmers first wilt green mustard and radish leaves for a couple of days then pound these adding a little water.

Greens are then packed in air-tight containers. After fermentation, the leaves are taken out and dried in the sun to be used as required. The ubiquitous condiment in North-Eastern states of India is fermented fish paste ngari its vegetarian rendering uses black soya beans. Hawaijar is prepared by fermenting cooked soya beans in banana or fig leaves packets that are put in a closed bamboo basket for three to five days.

This is considered adult food not fit for young children due to its rich protein content. Enduri pitha is a fermented batter based pancake that is steamed in turmeric leaves and served ritually on the Prathamashtami festival. Singal in Uttarakhand (called Seli roti in Nepal) is prepared with semolina or rice flour soaked overnight and mixed with sugar to help fermentation.

Much before Greek Yogurt was a twinkle in the eye of gifted marketers, dahi a rich source of folic acid, riboflavin, vitamin B-complex, and lactic acid bacteria was used by Indians in their daily diet. It is rich in probiotics, or good bacteria, thereby improving gut health. It further impedes the growth of E. coli and other bad bacteria in the gut.

Advocates of fermented foods maintain that fermentation increases the nutritional properties of ingredients enhancing the absorption of vitamins and minerals in the body. Many of these claims are validated by scientific research.

Fermentation helps break complex carbohydrates and sugars making these easily digestible. Probiotic foods certainly improve gut health. But to accept that all fermented foods are superfoods that dramatically boost our immune system and retard ageing or that these can be magic bullets to cure diabetes, blood pressure, etc. doesn’t seem very wise.

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