We found a friend in Fermentation.
“What’s your favorite fermented food?” I asked, interrupting the quiet hum of the Mama Fu’s office on Riverside. My co-workers’ are used to me asking them random questions about food, which they put up with because I bring them tasty new things to try. The answers surprised me:
“Sauerkraut is okay on a bratwurst.”
“Does kombucha count?”
Fermentation scares people off. You can almost hear the bubbling CO2 in the word itself. Fermentation. But fermentation is awesome, and I’m here to prove it to you.
Fermentation, properly understood and controlled, is one of our greatest culinary allies — right up there with fire. Before humans had easy access to refrigeration, fermentation was the miracle that allowed us to preserve our food. It’s the process of yeasts, bacteria, and other microorganisms chewing apart sugar molecules and converting them into something else- usually alcohol or lactic acid and CO2. (If you’re into reading a longer piece about the process by a scientifically-minded baker, check out Emily Buehler writing in Scientific American.)
For the purposes of this post, suffice it to say that fermentation is responsible for many of the foods you’re probably already a fan of. When bread dough rises, that’s fermentation at work. When grapes turn into wine? Fermentation. Every single variety of alcoholic beverage relies on fermentation. The variety of fermented milk products is astounding: sour cream, yogurt, butter, cheese. You like chocolate, right? Cacao pods are fermented after harvest prior to being processed into cocoa powder. Coffee? Yep. Pickles, olives, miso, tempeh, pepperoni, salami, prosciutto, soy sauce — all products of fermentation.
One of my favorite results of fermentation is kimchi, which you can add as side to any of the entrees we serve at Mama Fu’s. It’s a spicy, tart, umami bomb of flavor packed with beneficial probiotics. It’s the sun around which Korean cuisine revolves, but its description, “spicy, fermented cabbage,” sounds a bit intimidating. Don’t be afraid.
The origins of kimchi in Korea date back 2500 years, when humans started to preserve salted vegetables in earthenware pots buried in the ground. Through the years, other ingredients like garlic, spices, and chiles were added to arrive at the version of kimchi most of us are familiar with today. When you’re choosing a kimchi, look for one that hasn’t been pasteurized so that you can enjoy the health and digestive benefits of all those friendly microbes.
When we were an Austin upstart with five restaurants, we made our kimchi in-house in each restaurant. As we grew to over 20 locations, we started running out of space to make it ourselves, and found a partner in a Korean-American owned company in the Houston area that produces kimchi for Korean markets all over Southeast and Central Texas. We gave them our recipe, and we know it’s in good hands.
Fermentation is our friend. Try some kimchi. It’s tasty, and it’s good for you! Order it as a side or try it on our Spicy Seoul Stir Fry. And go ahead and round out your fermentation experience by having a beer (Thank you, fermentation!) as well. It will come in handy when the spice kicks in.