The latest food trend has, quite literally, been bubbling away for years. Fermentation is having a moment. From traditional shrubs and drinking vinegars finding their way onto cocktail menus to kimchi sliders and kombucha tea, the recent resurgence in fermented food and drink has been lauded for being as good for our palates as it is for our gut. Health-conscious disciples of Sandor Katz and Michael Pollan rave about the beneficial bacteria, but for others, it’s the complex tang that ferments and pickles add to a dish that keep them coming back for more.
Yet fermentation isn’t a new trend: it’s ancient history. “Humans have been fermenting longer than we’ve been writing words or cultivating soil,” according to pickle guru Katz, while written records in China show they’ve been using fermented soybeans for over three thousand years.
Not only do they have a long history, fermented foods seem to find their way onto almost every menu. Fermentation is, after all, simply the transformation of food by various bacteria, fungi, and the enzymes they produce. People have harnessed this transformative power in order to produce alcohol, to preserve food, and to make it more digestible, less toxic, and more delicious.
Most of us are unwittingly eating fermented foods every day – from sourdough bread, artisan cheese and wine to salami, chocolate and coffee, they’re a part of our diet, a part of our culture. In fact by some estimates, up to a third of the food we eat is fermented. Not such a fad after all.
Sit down for a meal at Yauatcha, for example, and you’ll probably be eating fermented foods without realising it. From the homemade cucumber pickle presented as you take a seat – a light, refreshing morsel that cleanses the palate and piques the appetite – to the pickled cabbage served alongside the Wagyu beef buns, or the salted radish and homemade fermented chillies that lift the steamed halibut dish to giddy heights (the fermentation mellowing the spice and sweetening the flavour of the fiery chillies), pickles abound.
These pickled vegetables are fundamental to the spirit of Chinese cooking. Almost every household in China has a rough earthenware pot where crunchy vegetables soak in brine with a splash of rice vinegar and a secret selection of spices – the vegetables come and go but the pickling brine stays, getting better and better with age.
Of course there can’t be a discussion about fermentation and Chinese cooking without mentioning soybeans. China’s rulers have been promoting soy agriculture for nearly three millennia, while the country’s long stability as a civilisation and empire has helped give rise to elaborate transformations of the humble bean.
Except for edamame, which are cooked while they are fresh, soybeans are rarely eaten merely cooked as they can be difficult to digest. Dried soybeans are therefore almost always fermented, or else processed into tofu. Myriad pastes and sauces are made from these beans – fermented black beans forming the base of many – to add a rich, spicy-salty hit to Chinese dishes. Try the stir-fry rib eye beef with preserved black bean and chilli, or the pepper chilli seafood with asparagus at Yauatcha to experience the addictive umami flavours these pastes can impart.
The most overlooked fermented food is perhaps the most prevalent in Chinese cooking. You’ll find it in countless dishes on the menu, as well as on every table for delicately dipping steamed dim sum. It is, of course, soy sauce.
Though naturally-brewed, soy sauce is made using just four basic ingredients (soybeans, wheat, salt and water), the technology of soy sauce preparation was at one time a closely guarded family art passed on from one generation to the next. While special recipes still remain, the major steps involved in the manufacture of soy sauce are no longer a secret. An indispensable flavouring and seasoning in Chinese cuisine, it was the first soy food to make its way around the world, finding a home in every kitchen cupboard.
At its core, fermenting is both one of the simplest ways to prepare food and an effective form of preservation. Before refrigeration, the life of many fresh products was prolonged using these time-honoured techniques. Today, fermentation has more than just a practical purpose: it’s a way of understanding flavour and, perhaps most importantly, a way of turning a good dish into an exceptional one.