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Importance of Fermented Foods

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The health benefits of fermented foods are many-fold. Additionally, they can be tasty too.

Ancient humans discovered the process of fermentation most probably by accident. But it did not take them long to discover the benefits and usage of fermentation. Apart from the naturally fermented foods such as yoghurt or wine, many varieties of fermented foods have been invented. A number of fermented foods are regularly produced and consumed around the globe. Almost all groups of food types can be subjected to fermentation. When grains are subjected to fermentation, the complex carbohydrates break down to produce alcohol as the end product. Among dairy-based fermented foods, yoghurt and cheese are well-known. But apart from grain and dairy products, many other food substances can be successfully fermented.



Kimchi is a traditional dish from Korea, made from fermented vegetables like cabbage, cucumber, radish or onions. Other seasonings such as ginger, garlic, fish sauce and brine are also added to the dish. Apart from being a dish in its own right, Kimchi is also part of countless other dishes. It frequents the list of the top healthiest foods for being rich in vitamins and fibers. A very similar dish from Germany, called Sauerkraut uses finely shredded cabbage as the main ingredient. The natural sugars present in the cabbage are broken down by the Lactobacillus bacteria to produce lactic acid. This acid gives the characteristic sour taste to Sauerkraut and acts as a preservative. Pao cai and Meigan cai are Chinese versions of Kimchi but sweeter in taste. Pickled cucumber is well-known in North America and parts of Europe. It is prepared by fermenting cucumbers in a solution of brine or vinegar. In many Balkan and Middle Eastern countries, pickled vegetables known as Tursu are commonly served as a side dish. Tursu is made from different varieties of vegetables, herbs, spices, vinegar and salt. There is a similar dish from Korea called Jangajii. Indian vegetable pickles are widely popular in the Indian sub-continent. One important ingredient in Indian pickles is oil which forms the base and acts as a preservative. Sinki and Gundruk are fermented vegetable foods from Nepal. Sinki is usually prepared from fermented radishes, while Gundruk contains fermented leaves of mustard, radish and cauliflower.



Different types of beans are fermented to produce various types of foods in East and South-East Asia. Soybean is frequently used for fermentation. Tempeh is a traditional Indonesian soybean product prepared from the fermentation of whole soybean. Because of its high protein, dietary fiber and essential vitamin content, it is often considered as a meat analogue. The Chinese Tofu is similar to Tempeh but prepared from the coagulation of soymilk. In contrast, Natto is a Japanese dish prepared by fermenting boiled soybeans. But unlike Tempeh, the beans are not crushed and compacted but are eaten as such. Another Japanese food known as Miso is produced by fermenting rice, barley and soybeans. Instead of bacteria, the fermentation is brought about by a type of fungus, Kojikin. Cheonggukjang and Doenjang are types of fermented bean pastes traditionally eaten in Korea. Fermented legumes also form an important part of Indian cuisine. Dhokla is a dish from the Western Indian state of Gujarat, made from fermenting a mixture of rice and chickpeas. Similarly, the south Indian dishes of Idli and Dosa use the fermented batter made from rice and black lentils.



Bagoong is a type of fermented fish paste from Philippines, prepared mostly from shrimp and salt. This process of fermentation produces the widely used fish sauce as a by-product. Similar shrimp pastes are commonly produced in other parts of south-east Asia. Fesikh is a type of fermented fish dish from Egypt, mostly produced from the grey Mullet. Ancient Greek and Roman people also knew the art of preserving fish through fermentation. The liquid sauce produced from the fermentation was called Garum. In Norway, a fermented fish-based food called Rakfisk is often eaten as a side dish. Trouts are usually used to prepare Rakfisk. A similar dish from Sweden is called Surstromming which uses Herrings. Other similar fermented fish-based dishes are Korean Hongeohoe and Japanese Kusaya. On the other hand, a Korean fermented food called Jeotgal does not use one single source. It is often made from a variety of seafood, such as squids, oysters, crabs, shellfish, shrimps, fish and fish eggs.



Meat is often exposed to fermentation or curing to increase the shelf-life. Jamon iberico also known as Iberian ham is a type of cured ham mostly produced in Spain. Chorizo is a type of fermented smoked sausage from Spain and Portugal, usually seasoned with dried red peppers. Similarly, the widely known Salami is a cured and fermented sausage eaten in southern Europe.



Kombucha is a type of medicinal drink using fermented tea. For the purpose of preparing Kombucha, a mixture of yeasts and bacteria (Kombucha culture) is added to the tea. It was first prepared in Russia and is quite popular in China and Japan. It is often claimed to be having several beneficial effects on the overall health. Garri is a commonly eaten West African food, prepared by mashing and fermenting cassava roots. Ogiri, also a West African food, is produced from the fermentation of sesame or egusi oilseeds. Nata de coco, originating from Philippines, is a dish made by fermenting coconut water. After fermentation, the dish is turned to a jelly like state by the production of microbial cellulose from bacterial action. The upper stems of the mustard plants are fermented to produce Zha cai, a pickled dish from China.


Benefits of Fermented Foods

Most of the fermented foods were invented from the desire to preserve foods longer than their natural shelf-life. During the fermentation process the carbohydrates present in the foods are broken down to organic acids which in turn act as preservatives. Fermentation also breaks down the complex proteins and fatty acids present in the foods into easily digestible constituents. As many of the fermented food products are eaten uncooked, vitamins which usually are destroyed during the cooking process remain intact. Fermentation also increases and sometimes completely changes the taste, aroma and flavor of many foods, thus making them more palatable. Many species of helpful probiotic are introduced to the intestinal microflora when fermented foods are consumed. In some cases, fermentation also greatly reduces the amount of anti-nutrients, making the food safer for human consumption. For example, cocoa beans are fermented before being processed during chocolate production. Fermentation process destroys the tannins in the raw cocoa beans, removing the health hazards.


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