While growing up in Delhi, each winter, my mother would buy black carrots that only appeared during the winter season to make our regular supply of kanji. She would take about three large carrots, scrub, slice and dice them, drown them in about two litres of hot water in a traditional ceramic pickle barni. Adding salt, red chilli powder and about four tablespoons of crushed mustard seeds, she’d plonk the jar in the sun. Stirring occasionally, every now and then, she’d check whether the deep crimson kanji was tart enough, and just the right shade of red. Once it was ready, the family would sit under the winter sun on the balcony and sip on a glass of kanji, the elixir of digestion after a meal of piping hot chola bhaturas and halwa.
The lactobacillus bacteria from the air, responsible for converting the sugar in the vegetable into lactic acid, made for a heady ferment, full of probiotics to aid even the most sluggish digestive system—a traditional home remedy—long before the age of laxatives and pepto-bismol.
Cut to recent times, Kimchi, Kefir drinks and Kombucha are the latest imports in the fermented foods category that are fast catching the fancy of health-conscious millennials and are rapidly filling up the shelves of all leading supermarkets.
Kefir grains, a culture of bacteria and yeasts, are being used to create milk, coconut and water kefir, while kombucha, fermented cold tea is produced by fermenting tea using SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast), a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, a pulpy mass known as a mushroom or the mother, which seemingly has a life of its own.
Another popular import is the German Sauerkraut, where finely cut raw cabbage is pickled in brine to create sour translucent cabbage, replete with vitamins and healthy microbes. There are several young homegrown brands such as Mo’s Kefir, Bombucha, Happy Booch, Atmosphere Kombucha that are now creating good gut products for a nascent marketplace.
The history of indigenous ferments
The repertoire of fermented dishes in India is very diverse—jalebi, idli, dhokla, appam, and many more. The most ubiquitous fermented food across India is curd where the lactobacillus bacteria transforms lactose into lactic acid.
Each Indian region has embraced the technique of fermentation with local ingredients—some of the most classic dishes being made with leftover rice. In Assam, Tripura, West Bengal, Bangladesh and regions of Bihar, people make a meal of leftover rice soaked in water called poita bhaat or panta bhaat. In Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, pakhala is cooked rice fermented in water tempered with curry leaves, cumin and fried chilli peppers. There’s also Kerala’s pazham kanji or vellachoru, Andhra’s saddi annam and Tamil Nadu’s pazhaya soru.
Benefits of fermentation
Fermentation is an anaerobic process that cultivates good bacteria in foods. In fermentation, microorganisms such as yeast and bacteria break down food components such as sugar into products with a unique flavour, feel and look, having undergone controlled microbial growth. The art of fermentation has been bubbling in our kitchens for generations.
In the Bhagvad Gita, the three basic gunas—Sattvic, Rajasic and Tamasic—define the qualities of a person’s nature and determines what he eats. Fermented foods are said to be related to Rajasic tendencies: passionate, restless and energetic, and foods that have not been freshly made.
According to Ayurveda, fermented foods are best avoided during the summer and monsoon seasons, when the digestive fire is at its lowest, but could be consumed during spring and winter. Explains Vinita Contractor, Founder, Down 2 Hearth, a nutrition and health consultancy, “Ayurveda considers fermented or cultured foods heating or pitta-aggravating and, in excess, may cause overheating and/or inflammation.” During summer months, fermented foods can be consumed in small amounts to boost digestive strength. “Thus, those with a pitta dominant system are advised to avoid sour foods and choose foods that haven’t been fermented for very long period,” she says.
Fermented foods aid gut health
Fermentation not only lengthens the shelf life of food, and supports a healthy gut, but also has discernible health benefits, such as reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and inflammation due to the probiotics they contain.
The connection between gut health and immunity, and how it impacts our mood, the ability to digest and derive the benefit of nutrients from the foods we consume, is receiving immense attention from the medical community. Increased consumption of antibiotics and processed foods compromise the gut microbiome. “Unhealthy gut manifests into frequent issues of digestion or bloating as well as more serious conditions such as leaky gut syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), celiac disease, etc.” Fermented foods help to tackle these issues by aiding the digestion of toxins and by stimulating the digestive fire. “As per Ayurveda, small amounts of fermented foods can be consumed by all types of doshas to increase the digestive fire,” says Contractor.
With modern chefs reviving traditional Indian culinary practices and local ingredients, they are also embracing the age-old knowledge of good gut bacteria for optimum health in their kitchens. Chef Saurabh Udinia, Brand Chef at Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra, says, “The modern diet is an area of concern and the need for good bacteria is becoming important because of modern lifestyles and irregular eating habits. Processed, junk and instant foods are one of the main reasons for the same. There is a good need to include fermented foods in our daily diet to provide an arsenal for the digestive tract for better absorption of nutrients and repair of the mechanism.”
Chef Chirag Makwana, Senior Sous Chef, Toast & Tonic, Mumbai has found ingenious ways to serve fermented foods on the menu. “We make ferments such as kimchi, sauerkraut, radish, pickles and use them in fried rice, sandwiches, burgers, and soups. These ferments give the dish an extra burst of umami.” He liberally uses kimchi with the soft-shell crab fried rice to lend an extra punch, sauerkraut in the pulled buff sliders, and fermented radishes with cold ramen. “Use them in sandwiches, smoothies, dressings, condiments or over salad or rice to add an element of fun and healthy,” he advises.
Apart from adding a tasty punch to food, they are good to fix the gut flora. But a healthy diet is more than just ingesting your regular dose of fermented foods. “Refined food with not enough fibre and incorrect food combination directly affects the gut flora, but factors such as stress, consumption of alcohol, use of toxic home and personal care products all affect the gut health. Making the required lifestyle changes, stress management, in addition to dietary changes will go a long way in working with issues such as a leaky gut or gut inflammation,” adds Contractor.
So, if you want to take care of your gut—often called the second brain—without resorting to the universe of probiotic pills, laxatives and the assorted medical arsenal, make sure you have a balanced diet complete with au naturel fermented foods.
Carrot Kanji recipe
- 500 gms orange carrots
- 100 gms beetroot
- 20 gms dry ground mustard seeds
- 5 gms black salt
- A pinch of roasted jeera
- 2 gm salt
- 10 gm sugar
- Peel the beetroot and carrot and cut them into small pieces.
- Mix all ingredients and add 2.5 litres of water.
- Heat mixture at 100 degree Celsius for 6 hours.
- Let the mix rest for an hour then strain with a fine juice strainer. Serve kanji chilled.
Recipe by Chef Saurabh Udinia