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For most of us, the recipes cooked in our grandmothers’ kitchen are an essential part of our childhoods. The familiar aroma and taste of those dishes often lead us down nostalgia lane. If one observes closely, there are many a technique used by our grandparents which could turn extra food into something nutritious. Be it lassi, kanji, pickles, or the Bengali dish panta bhaat which is made of fermented rice – there are several such tricks hidden in the kitchens of our grandmas which not only minimize food wastage but also make it more nutritious. Another thing common between these dishes is that they are made of fermented food.
There are several dishes in Indian cuisine which use fermentation to create a riot of flavours. In fact, you can find several accounts of how residents of tribal regions use flowers and plants like mahua to ferment and make brews. The art of fermentation recently hogged the limelight with the film ‘Axone’ – a form of fermented soybean particular to various parts of north-eastern India. The movie is a story based on the trouble a group of north-eastern natives runs into with their landlord in Delhi while cooking the peculiarly smelling axone.
Fermentation is a breakdown of chemicals in a substance, leading to the release of bacteria and microorganisms. The process usually involves release of effervescence and heat. Food fermentation is a biochemical process that uses the metabolic activity of bacteria and yeast to convert carbohydrates into organic acids or alcohol, anaerobically.
Moreover, the microorganisms released during the process of fermentation are considered beneficial for humans. In fact, there are several health benefits associated with fermented foods. Fermented foods are rich in probiotics which boost gut health and aid in digestion. They help you absorb nutrients better and also improve immunity. According to Harvard Health, by consuming fermented food vegetarians can get more of Vitamin B12, which isn’t otherwise present in plant-based foods. Primarily used for making food last longer, the technique is now being used to add more flavors to cuisines. It is because of fermentation that the bhatura in chhola-bhatura is so fluffy. One of the most popular uses of fermentation is to prepare alcohol. Its popularity is only rising in India if the number of mushrooming microbreweries in the country are any indication.
The process of fermentation can be traced to almost 7000 BC to ancient Chinese civilization. Members of the civilization are credited with making ‘kui’, a beer-like beverage prepared with rice, honey, hawthorne plant and fruits from grape plant. Clay tablets from the era of Babylonian civilization indicate that beer was brewed during the era. In 2000 BC, the practice of pickling in cucumbers surfaced in the Middle East. Historians point out that fermentation of tea was discovered in Japan around 200 BC. They also say that it was between 500 AD and 1000 AD, that the world started fermenting legumes and cereals. South Indian delicacies like dosa and idli are examples of how this trend evolved.
The science of fermentation is called zymology. French chemist Louis Pasteur is often dubbed as the world’s first zymologist for touching upon the connection between fermentation and yeast in the 1850s. Before Pasteur’s discovery, it was largely believed that the decay of microorganisms led to foods being fermented. Through years of study, he concluded that yeast turns sugars into alcohol. As you might know, that yeast belongs to the same family as fungi. It is rich in Vitamin B. It is used in genetic engineering to create enzymes that improve the body’s ability to heal.
If we talk about Indian cuisine, there are several dishes which might be cooked in your kitchen, which owe their existence to fermentation:
A look at Ayurvedic texts would show how fermented herbs have been used for centuries in the ancient Indian practice. According to Charaka Samhita, nine plant sources which included flowers, bark, roots, cereals and fruits were used in preparing fermented medicines. Sushruta Samhita, which is considered to be a treatise of surgical treatment, talks about several fermented foods which were used an anesthetic during the procedures.
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