Fermented Foods Have Been Around Since The Dawn Of Time — So Why Are We Obsessed With Them Right Now?

Eliza Dumais
·8 mins read

While trudging through quarantine, “time” passes by way of meals. Maybe you’ve spent the past however-many-months tenderly nursing your sourdough starter. Perhaps you’ve begun stocking your fridge with fizzing, glass bottles of kombucha. Maybe you’ve recently acquired a palate for natural wine. Either way, chances are, your kitchen is stocked with something fermented. And while the early method of food conservation dates as far back as the neolithic period, over the past decade fermented foods have enjoyed something of a renaissance. Likely, you’re participating now more than ever.

Simply put, to ferment is to preserve or in some way alter a food with the use of microbes (yeast, mold, or bacteria). In the fermentation process, those live and active microbes break sugars and starches down into alcohols and acids. In some cases, this means transforming carbohydrates to ethanol (wine! beer! cider!) but in other cases, it’s a mode of turning, say, cabbage, into kimchi.

In other words, the whole fermentation process can be described as a means of pre-digestion. All those microbes help break down the sugars and starches in your food, before you’ve actually eaten it. “If you struggle with digestion — if you’re prone to stomach aches or IBS — the pre-digestive nature of fermented foods can make them easier to process,” says board-certified naturopathic doctor, Maura Henninger. “Your gut is like a little eco-system — you need to tend to it, and the bacteria in things like kimchi and kombucha may be beneficial.”

Gastrointestinal doctors and healers like Dr. Henninger have been recommending fermented foods for centuries, but the practice of fermentation dates back much further than that. As early as 7000 BC, there is record of an ancient Chinese beverage called Kiu that’s best described as an early iteration of beer. Around 3500 BC there’s evidence of the ancient Egyptian practice of using yeast to leaven bread. By 2000 BC, across China, the fermentation of vegetables (kimchi) and home-brewed tea (kombucha) was a widespread practice.

In subsequent years, the Germans earned fame for their sauerkraut; in Russia, pickles became a delicacy; across Korea and China, miso and fermented tofu maintained relentless popularity; and in the U.S, pastoral families pickled perishables of all kinds to preserve them in the days before freezer aisles offered wealths of unspoilable lasagna noodles.

But for the expansiveness of its history, the last decade has shown a wild spike in interest in fermentation. According to a survey by restaurant management software company, Upserve, fermented foods saw an 140% increase in popularity on American restaurant menus in 2018. Kombucha grossed 1.67 billion dollars globally in 2019. So the question is, why now?

According to Jim Spalding, kombucha brand KeVita’s Senior Director of Brand Strategy and Communications, kombucha, specifically, can act as a notably accessible route to honing in on gut health without some of the more cumbersome routine shifts modern-day wellness can require. “Probiotics are often associated with the fermented food trend,” he explains. “Our line of Master Brew Kombuchas all contain billions of live probiotics per bottle, which give consumers an accessible way of incorporating more probiotics into their daily routines.”

KeVita is particularly committed to unveiling flavors that fall within already-popularized palates (think: Meyer Lemon, Lavender Melon, and Lemon Ginger). “Our proprietary ways of formulating taste experiences — along with cultures, ferments, and probiotics — aim to propel ‘alternative’ foods and beverages into the mainstream,” says Spalding. And as illustrated by recent IRi data, that shift is fairly tangible: The functional beverage category (inclusive of kombucha, non-dairy probiotic beverages and apple cider vinegar tonics) has grown roughly 21.7% in dollar sales over the past 3 years.

It’s highly likely that, in some part, this spike is also a symptom of the sober-ish movement. As mixologists and bartenders stir up ever-expanding menus of low ABV-cocktails and consumers tend towards less booze-heavy refreshments for social occasions or at-home nightcaps, kombucha can fill a similar niche. With flavors on offer like KeVita’s Mojita Lime Mint Coconut and Blackberry Hops, all of which come with a slight fermented kick not dissimilar to that of a well-made cocktail, non-alcoholic kombucha can provide a welcome alternative for the sober-curious.

For Zoe Gong, a food influencer with a background in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), who hosts roving ferment-forward supper clubs across New York City, the growing trend in fermented cooking and eating extends beyond the purported gut health benefits. “I think people are excited about tasting something they couldn’t or don’t know how to make for themselves. They like going out to eat and being introduced to something foreign.” Zoe’s personal favorite dish of this kind is fermented tofu — tofu long marinated in salt, rice wine, sesame oil, and vinegar. “It has this incredible texture. It’s salty and filled with umami,” she says. “People like it because the flavor is so interesting and complicated — it’s exciting.

With respect to taste, the cool kid natural wine renaissance is also a nod to the pleasure in tasting ferment. These days, our Instagram feeds are all but clogged with design-forward natural wine labels, and our mealscapes center around cloudy bottles of skin-contact Pinot Gris. “When kombucha went mainstream, it sort of normalized the flavor of ferment,” says Jean-Baptiste Humbert, owner of SoHo cult-favorite natural wine shop, Wine Therapy. “But more than that, I think people love the vinegary, fermented flavor that’s fundamental to natural wine because it tastes ‘real,’ not artificial. Fermented flavors have something raw about them.”

According to Humbert, the flavor of ferment is nothing short of “primitive” — which is quite literally true. “It’s like you can taste that these wines come directly from the earth with nothing in the middle — just fermented grapes — that’s all. You taste the simplicity,” he says.

In his shop, Humbert says he encounters customers who are both willing and excited to taste wines that verge into “funkier” territory with more and more frequency. While just a few years ago, it was generally believed that higher quality wines were uniform in flavor, he now finds that customers want the version of imperfect disparity that comes from withholding artificial additives or chemicals. “Food is following the same curve — there’s demand for transparent local products produced without chemicals. People like to know about their food’s origins,” he says. “It’s the same with wine. I think we tend to forget that wine is a living thing, there are microorganisms that keep it alive.”

According to Junghyun ‘JP’ Park, chef and owner behind beloved, New York-based Korean restaurants, Atoboy and Atomix, fermented flavors tell a story. They’re complex and dynamic, and for that reason, they lend nuance to produce that is fresher or cleaner in taste. “At both of my restaurants, fermented soybean products — ganjang, doenjang, and yeondu — all appear in many of our dishes. We use them because imparting the flavor of fermentation adds depth,” he says. “The interest in seasonality has been at a high over the past few years, and I think fermentation is a natural follow-up — it’s a way to preserve seasonal ingredients beyond their short timeframe.”

Kimchi, a tried and true staple of Korean dining, is now commonplace in American supermarkets: napa cabbage (a superfood in its own rite) left pickling for anywhere from a few days to a few months, resulting in a sweet-sour, acidic dish often described as “fizzy.” In Korea, where nearly 1.5 million tons of kimchi are consumed annually, the recipes vary. Families add their own precise combinations of seasonings, giving way to hundreds of varieties, some of which depart from the cabbage base entirely (think: radishes, pork belly, chestnuts, even fruit). And while the popularized American version is fairly streamlined comparatively, in 2018, the American kimchi market was valued at 3000 million. You’ll even find Kimchi available as a topping at California Pizza Kitchen.

And of course, we’re also seeing ferment in carbohydrate form: sourdough bread. Surely, possession of sourdough starter has never been quite as glamorous as it is now, while folks in quarantine search for ways to broach increasingly difficult and laborious culinary projects at home (read: anxiety-baking). For beginners, a traditional focaccia might be a more practical (and tangible) approach, but right now, people are more willing than ever to wait out the fermentation period. To let their starters bubble, and develop until they’re plenty ripe. The longer you allow your starter to ferment, the more sour your loaf will taste — and these days, that’s a selling point.

No matter the dish in question — be it soybeans or flavor-driven kombucha like KeVita — fermented foods tell a story. They’re nuanced, many-layered. Kimchi and sourdough alike smack of acid and sour-sweet brine, even for those of us with less-than-refined palates. They taste like the process of aging. And while the wellness revolution would have us believe that fermented food’s uptick in popularity is merely a product of the fact that we’re eternally prepared to flirt with anything that just might make us feel better, the phenomenon cuts deeper than that. There’s something to be said for flavor that comes with a narrative — that tastes of its own timeline.

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