Fermentation is motivating scientists to listen to gastronomers, a rare occurrence in the field of science. 

“There’s going to be a huge exchange in this two-way road that we’re living in. Innovation in flavor coming from gastronomy and innovation coming from a high-level biotechnology, they are going to be harmonious,” says Jason White, director of the fermentation lab at Noma in Copenhagen. “We’re going to be able to create this infrastructure and community of people who have the same goal, and the same goal is going to be the wellness of our planet.”

White spoke at the 2nd international Food Innovation Conference. This annual gathering of industry experts is produced by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI), Switzerland’s oldest independent think tank, which researches the future of food, retail and health.

The conference focused on the future of fermented alternative proteins. Or, as GDI puts it: “how innovation can solve the carnivore conundrum.” Speakers included the founders of numerous precision fermentation companies, such as SuperBrewed Food, Bosque Foods, Melt&Marble and WNWN Food Labs.

“We do the same thing, we just have different outputs”

Fermentation for alternative proteins is a divisive topic among traditional fermenters. Many say it’s lab-created fake food. Advocates, though, argue precision fermentation using DNA from mammals (as with Impossible Foods’ heme protein burger) and biomass fermentation of fast-growing, naturally-occurring organisms(e.g., Nature’s Fynd fungi protein) are reducing the risk of a global food crisis. Meat consumption is increasing, but animal meat is environmentally inefficient to raise. The significant amounts of agricultural land, fertilizer, pesticide and hormones needed to raise animals for meat protein release harmful carbon emissions.

The chefs on GDI’s “Fermentation: A World Within Gastronomy” panel spoke favorably of using fermentation for alt foods. White was joined by Ezio Bertorelli, co-founder of fermentation shop Meta Copenhagen, and Sirkka Hammer, founder of food manufacturer Wiener Miso in Austria.

“I think that it’s important for us not to steer too far away from the origins of fermentation,” White notes. But, “whether you have this bioreactor filled with whatever working inside of a laboratory with a team of scientists, we are still creating something that comes from microorganisms and from organisms. And so we do the same thing, we just have different outputs, different audiences.”

Precision fermentation technology is rooted in traditional fermentation, he notes. You need to understand the abilities of microbes and composition of ingredients for a successful precision fermentation. 

“Inside of these laboratories and restaurants, there’s so many things that are being discovered that stop at the guest experience,” White says of fermentation. Today, as fermentation continues a revitalization as a kitchen craft, it’s utilized by more people rather than just chefs and scientists. 

DIscovering Fermentation

Hammer highlighted the boom in home fermentation, with people creating the bold flavors of fermented foods and beverages on their own countertops. 

“There’s a certain magic in fermentation. That’s why you’re gripped with it,” she says. “People are bringing a little bit of that magic, uncontrollable magic maybe [into their homes].”

At Wiener Miso, Hammer launched the company’s umami-driven ferments after living in Asia for more than a decade. The spices, pastes and sauces she makes are based on traditional Japanese ferments. 

“Fermenting gives you in gastronomy next level or an add-on of flavors and textures,” she says. “Fermentation really changes the texture in a different way than if you cook it or freeze it. It gives it new dimensions.”

Flavor is what introduced Bertorelli to fermentation, too. His background is in professional cooking – he is the former executive chef of La Petite Table in Paris – but he was always experimenting with miso and sauerkraut in his home kitchen.

Even today, his fermentation experiments “go terribly wrong most of the time,” says Bertorelli. Only about 5% are successes, “that’s what makes it exciting.”

“Fermentation really changed my life because it showed me most of the dishes I was passionate about, the origin of the flavor, was the fermented part,” he says. “Flavor is universal… If you have that mind-blowing moment, it can reconnect you with things that are inside all of us, like our ancestors have been eating these foods since thousands of years ago and it’s sort of like going back in time while still being here.”

The Unsung History of Umami

In the early 1900s, Japanese chemist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda discovered the flavor umami by distilling it from soup stock. That compound – which is an amino acid, glutamate — produces the savory flavor in meat, mushrooms and seaweed. Ikeda called the flavor after the Japanese word umami which means “essence of deliciousness.”

“It is the peculiar taste which we feel as umai, meaning brothy, meaty or savory, arising from fish, meat and so forth,” Ikeda wrote in the Journal of Tokyo Chemical Society.

A huge discovery, umami became the fifth flavor next to salty, sweet, sour and bitter. Ikeda went on to start a company, Ajinomoto, which mass produces monosodium glutamate — MSG — a key ingredient in producing umami.

But it took nearly 100 years for umami to be recognized by the broader scientific community, especially in the western world. An NPR story points to the anti-Asian “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” which began in the 60s and 70s. MSG was vilified as an unhealthy additive, numbing mouths and making people sick (an apparent fable modern food scientists have never been able to prove). Another reason: umami research may have been ignored in the U.S. because of tension with Japan during World War II . 

“Fermented foods and seasonings like sake, soy sauce, miso were a large part of the diet in Japan and also a large part of the economy. And so research into the flavor components of those kinds of foods were an important part of rationalizing diet in Japan.”

says Victoria Lee, professor and author of “The Arts Of The Microbial World.”

Read more (NPR)

The Nordic Diet is getting more attention from dietitians, who are encouraging clients to embrace a range of fruits, vegetables, fish and fermented food and drink.

“’The Nordic diet features a large variety of foods, without any strict restrictions, which are key to a sustainable way of eating,” says Tamara Willner, London-based nutritionist.

Though the Mediterranean diet has dominated dietitians’ wellness advice, the Nordic diet is a heartier option. It includes seasonal foods that thrive in colder climates, like root vegetables – beets, carrots, turnips – and fruits – plums, apples and berries. Fish like herring are also recommended. Fermented food is a key differentiator  between the two diets – kefir, fermented fish and fermented vegetables are prominent in Nordic countries.

“Our gut hosts a huge number of gut microbes that feed off the foods we eat and produce more bacteria,” Willner continues. 

The Nordic diet is cheaper to maintain, too. The produce is generally less expensive and the Nordic diet relies on whole grains, beans or lentils.

Read more (Daily Mail)

Championing Indigenous Brewers

The headline says it all: “The Country’s First Native American Woman-Owned Brewery in the U.S. Doesn’t Want to Be Its Last.”

Co-founders Shyla Sheppard (who has heritage from the Three Affiliated Tribes – Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara – of North Dakota) and her business partner and wife, Dr. Missy Begay (Diné heritage) founded Bow & Arrow Brewing Co. in 2016. The brewery has become known for wild and sour beers made with cultivated yeast. They forage for neomexicanus hops, a species found in New Mexico. Local and indigenious ingredients – like blue corn, sumac, prickly pear and juniper – are used in a new line of hard seltzers.

Bow & Arrow began a unique initiative on October 11, 2021, Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The brewery launched Native Land. They provided an IPA recipe to breweries across the U.S. to create a beer for a common mission: “to acknowledge the contributions and history of Native American people in the United States.” Participating breweries were given a can design template, which included space to acknowledge the tribal land where the brewery is located.

The campaign was so popular – 53 breweries in 24 states and one Canadian province brewed Native Land beer – that they extended the deadline for the project to September 2022. The beers are “vehicles for activism,” with a portion of proceeds going to a Native American-operated nonprofit of the brewer’s choice. 

“We’re reclaiming our history and narrative. I think the contributions that Native people have had to agriculture have been erased or dismissed. It’s important to share that story to non-Native people, but also to other Native folks,” she says. “I think fostering that appreciation and connection to our history brings about healthier Native communities.”

Bow & Arrow is one of only a small number of Native-owned breweries in the U.S. – but Sheppard and Begay hope that will change and, one day, there will be more. Sheppard adds: “Having done what we’ve done — in what I hope is a respectful way of incorporating our culture and background — I think it’s inspiring other brewers.”

Read more (Eater)

Should there be global standards for fermented foods? A new study argues “to preserve consumer confidence in fermented foods,” uniform regulations are needed.

Current guidelines “are not mature enough to adequately regulate the significant diversity of fermented foods that are increasingly available in the market,” reads the study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Nutrition. While fermented foods are experiencing a major resurgence in popularity, standards and regulations differ by country and – in some instances – region and state. Fermentation regulations are few and, in the case of some foods, nonexistent. 

Scientists at Teagasc, Ireland (the agriculture and food authority in Ireland) studied regulations in North America, South America, Asia, Africa, Europe and Australia/New Zealand. Their research – supported by the Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences (IAFNS) – is thorough. They found legislative efforts to regulate or standardize fermented foods “have been largely reactive, rather than being proactive, in nature.”

A harmonized blueprint, the study continues, would include specifics for each fermented food, not just the category. Uniform standards would include:

  • Microbial and chemical composition 
  • Safety protocols
  • Standards on storage, transportation and distribution
  • Communication guidelines
  • Regulatory clarity
  • Government expert committee oversight

“Ultimately, addressing the challenges outlined here, would contribute to the ease of doing business, encourage consumer and investor confidence, leading to growth and innovation in this category, which in turn will catalyse overall economic progress,” the study reads.

There is also a need for a uniform regulatory framework because there is “…a visible  lack of consideration of insights gained from the large corpus of microbiome studies on FFs and their microbial composition in corresponding global Food Standards or Codes.”

There is currently a Codex Alimentarius or “Food Code” by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, part of the Food Standards Programme for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). But fermented foods are not extensively represented. Regional standards have also been established by FAO and WHO, but these are generally for traditional fermented foods and beverages consumed only in certain regions, not widely used elsewhere.

The study points to South Korea and India as examples. Both countries have consolidated standards and specifications on fermented foods into legislation.

When the war in Ukraine broke out, Olga Koutseridi, a Ukrainian American baker, writer and historian, felt an urgent need to preserve the traditional Ukrainian recipes she grew up with.

Koutseridi’s ancestors tended gardens outside Mariupol. They preserved the food they couldn’t eat, fermenting tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage and sour cherries. They drank homemade kombucha, kefir  and vodka. They made varenyky (dumplings stuffed with sour cherries and cheese) and chebureki (fried pastry filled with meat). 

“Maybe now is not the time to celebrate Ukrainian food,” Koutseridi said. “But this feels like the only chance we have to preserve it. … Every time someone makes a Ukrainian dish in an American kitchen, it’s an act of resistance.”

Koutseridi has begun compiling these recipes, with an emphasis on history. She’s contacted Ukrainian food experts around the world (including Olia Hercules, author of Summer Kitchens). 

She feels that war is destroying Ukraine’s identity, history and culture.“Now is the time to delve into{the country’s] food in detail,” Hercules said. “There’s so much more to it than borsch.”

Read more (The New York Times)

Mead’s Modern Moment

“Somewhere between wine, beer, and cider lives mead. An ancient libation like no other, mead has been a pleasant surprise to drinkers for eons. Norsemen would be thrilled to know that it has made a modern-day comeback.”

Mead was highlighted in an article in Tasting Table, “appreciated by everyone from Vikings to millennials.” Also known as honey wine, it is experiencing a modern resurgence. Mead makers are adding unique seasonings and spices to enliven their creations – but it needs to be at least 51% wine. 

More meaderies are popping up – there is now at least one in every U.S. state. But liquor stores are still confused on where to put meads. The national sales manager of Chaucer’s Cellars – the country’s longest-running meadery – says most stores have no clue where to display mead. 

Read more (Tasting Table)

Chef Andrew Wong created the first Michelin two-star Chinese restaurant outside Asia. His London-based A Wong is an homage to China’s 3,000-year culinary history and a contemporary spin on the country’s regional cuisine. 

Fermented wild sea bass and fermented coconut are part of the “Taste of China” dinner menu. A popular dish called “Why the Buddha Didn’t Jump Over the Wall” is barbecued sweet potato covered in a fermented, salted black-bean relish. It’s no surprise Wong’s favorite ingredient is fermented bean curd. He says the tofu, soaked in salt and chili, is as close to cheese as you can get in China. It’s eaten with congee and used as a condiment.

“It’s very salty; umami in its purest form,” Wong says. “I use it a lot in my cooking, especially in vegetarian dishes where we can’t use oyster sauce. We cook it out with some stock, ginger, garlic, and make a sauce. The combination of vegetables, garlic, chili and fermented bean curd creates a really deep meaty flavor.”

He advises chefs to use it like a stock cube, because it’s soft and will coat the mouth in umami flavor.

Read more (Guardian)

Fungi fermenter Shared Cultures was the featured cover story in a recent Food & Wine section of the San Francisco Chronicle. Company co-owners Elena Hsu and Kevin Gondo make small-batch fermented soy sauce, miso, and sauces and marinades using koji and wild, foraged mushrooms. 

The article calls Shared Cultures “the darling of the Bay Area food scene.” It details how they use traditional techniques with unexpected ingredients, like a shoyu with quinoa and lentils, a miso with cacao nib and a koji salt with leek flowers.

Hsu and Gondo also open up about the challenges of scaling  artisanal fermentation. They are the only employees at the companys and can’t keep up with the demand. Their ferments require a lot of time, some fermenting for eight months in a closet-size room in their rented commercial kitchen. They note that it is too expensive to rent or purchase their own warehouse in the Bay Area. 

Multiple California chefs use Shared Cultures products for an added umami punch. Hsu encourages home cooks to experiment with their products, too, “You don’t have to have a $300 tasting menu to try these flavors,” she says. “You can be the chef.”

Read more (San Francisco Chronicle)

Soy sauce is arguably the most important seasoning in Japanese cooking. Its well-balanced, salty-sweet taste and deep layer of umami richness make nearly all foods taste more delicious and satisfying. Its uses range from a dab on sushi to a splash into noodle soups and stir-fries, as well as the featured flavor of glazed dishes like teriyaki,” reads an article in BBC Travel.

The author traveled to the port town of Yuasa to learn more about the history of the “holy grail of Japanese cuisine: soy sauce.” In 2017, the country’s Agency for Cultural Affairs designated Yuasa as a Japan Heritage Site for being the birthplace of Japanese soy sauce. Soy sauce was first made in Yuasa in the 13th Century. 

At its peak, the small town with a population of around 1,000 had more than 90 soy sauce breweries. Today, there are five soy sauce shops and six Kinzanji-miso makers. The decline is related to the rise of mass-produced soy sauce brands, who skimp on quality for a lower-priced soy sauce. It’s estimated that only 1% of soy sauce brewers still produce using traditional methods.

Read more (BBC)