Bubble, bubble, fizz, fizz. These are the noises coming from many Irish restaurants as chefs becoming increasingly curious about fermented foods such as kefir, kimchi and kombucha.
At Five Points in Harold’s Cross, jars of sauerkraut and pickled beets and carrots line the shelves. At the Happy Pear in Greystones and Clondalkin, there’s kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut.
Why is fermentation proving to be so popular? Firstly, it’s not a fad. It’s an ancient cooking process that has been used for centuries to make food last longer. When farmers had a glut of vegetables, it made sense to pickle some so that they would have a tasty treat later on in the year.
Fermented foods certainly are tasty. Whether you add miso to a dressing or serve kimchi as part of a salad plate, they pack a punch when it comes to flavour. They are healthy too. Fermented foods support a huge variety of healthy bacteria that contribute to good gut health.
Another health benefit comes from the fact that fermentation breaks down food slightly before we eat it. This is why people with gluten intolerances often prefer sourdough bread. The fermentation process involved in making it breaks down the gluten, making it easier for the body to digest.
There are even some foods that become more nutritionally rich through fermentation. Sauerkraut for example has been shown to contain anti-carcinogenic compounds that aren’t found to the same extent in unfermented cabbage.
Aisling Rogerson, co-owner of the Fumbally in Dublin, is a firm fan of fermentation. “About five years ago, as the fermentation revival was bubbling away in its early stages, the Fumbally team got a whiff of what was going on,” she says. “A couple of us started playing around with some kimchi and krauts and a trip to Noma in 2014 really got me massively interested. Meeting Sandor Katz (a leading proponent of fermentation) was a big inspiration too.”
Aisling found making krauts was easy. “We’d make them during kitchen meetings,” she says. “Someone would chop a cabbage, mix it with salt and we’d pass it around squeezing it as we chatted. By the end of the meeting, we’d stuff it in a jar and it would be ready to use a few weeks later, in a sandwich or a salad.”
That’s not to say that there weren’t disasters along the way. “We did a wild yeast experiment on some damsons a few years ago and produced an explosion Vesuvius would have been proud of,” she says. “But we’ve had more successes than failures. Every time, we’re amazed that something as simple as cabbage and salt can produce some of the most complex and unpredictable flavours that just get better with time.”
The response from customers has been positive. “Most people love the fermented cabbage on our breakfast menu and our fermented drinks go down an absolute treat,” says Aisling. “We make water kefir, milk kefir, kombucha and ginger bug in house and the generous consensus is that they are really delicious.”
Maya Binder of the Little Cheese Shop in Tralee has noticed a similar interest in the sauerkrauts and kimchi that she serves in the café attached to her shop.
“It’s a seasonal thing for me,” she says. “I make them now when vegetables are good, juicy and fresh and then I keep them for use over the winter when there aren’t many vegetables around.”
She has noticed an increase in interest from her customers. “A lot of people already know about fermented food and there are some who come in to me especially to buy little containers to bring home,” says Maya. “But I ask everyone if they would like some with their salad plates and people are more and more open to the idea. They know that the gut is the heart of your health and that fermented food is good for the health. Even better is that my krauts and kimchi taste good!”
Where to start with fermenting?
Maya Binder recommends roughly grating two kilograms of daikon radish and carrots.
“For two kilos of veg, you’ll need one tablespoon of salt,” she says. “Mix in a bowl until the juice starts coming out of the vegetables.”
“Press firmly into a Kilner jar, making sure that there is 2cm of juice on top of the vegetables. I sit a glass jar filled with water on top of the vegetables so that they stay submerged. Cover the whole thing with a muslin cloth. Leave at room temperature for a few days or until you can see, hear or taste the bubbling. Once you can hear that, close the jar and store it in a cool place. It’s ready to eat then but you could leave it for longer to become sourer and build up even more probiotics. I usually leave mine for at least three weeks in the fridge.”