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:
Idli: To make these savory steamed cakes, soak four parts of rice and one part urad dal for four to five hours. Grind them separately, mix them and then leave the mixture overnight to ferment. Next, add salt and put the batter in a mould and steam them.
Dosa: Soak a mixture of rice and black gram either in 3:1 or 4:1 ratio overnight and then grind it. Leave the batter to ferment overnight. Next, add water to get the desired consistency and salt to taste. Spread oil on a hot pan, pour a ladle-full of the batter on it and spread like a crepe. Cook until both sides are crispy and serve with coconut chutney and sambhar.
Kanji: For two servings of kanji, cut black carrots into finger-seized pieces and boil them in six cups of water. After the carrots are boiled, add three tablespoons of mustard powder and two tablespoons of salt to the mixture and transfer it to a jar with a lid. Keep the container in sun to ferment. The jar should be kept in sunlight for at least three days for the taste of mustard to be pronounced.
Lassi: Take fresh curd and beat it. You might want to add water to adjust the consistency. Next, add sugar according to taste.
Dhokla: Mix gram flour, salt, sugar, lemon juice and baking soda and leave it to ferment for up to two hours. Next, pour water in a steamer. Grease a plate with oil and spread the batter across it. Put the plate in the steamer and cover it with a lid. Cook for 15-20 minutes and then take the plate out. Cut the steamed dhokla into square pieces, garnish with coriander and grated coconut and serve.
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.