A deep dive into ethnic fermented food

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While dealing with the concept of fermentation, it is natural that our brain start to process images of wine and beer. The former is made out of fermented grapes and the latter out of fermented cereal grains. But why do we narrow it down to only the most popular alcoholic drinks and not dive deeper into the ethnic fermented food choices present across our country: dosa, idli, appam, dhokla, axone, jalebi, siddu, Mangalore buns, and poita bhaat are just a handful from the list of many.

The story of fermentation

Lakshmi Nair tells you the right way to prepare idli-dosa batter

A process that has evolved with mankind. The chemical process that breaks down a substance and breathes new life into the product. To survive and adapt, human beings found indigenous methods, this being one of them. Though fermentation is deep-rooted in our cultural history, fermented food products fall under the 'Tamasic' diet in Ayurveda. As per this system, material substances and non-material ones are necessary for the creation of the universe. While Earth, water, fire, air and space form the material elements, satva, rajas and tamas are the universal energies or the trigunas. Food gets categorized under each of these:

Fresh, natural, and lightly seasoned that needs no further processing fall under satva guna or satvik diet. The people who consume rajasic food, edibles that are spicy, rich, and tempting, are considered to be passionate and ambitious.

Tamas is observed as a quality that resists, one that balances satva and rajas. Over processed and fermented food is nestled within the tamasic diet. This food is said to remain in the body for a very long time.

The most popular treats from Kerala that undergo fermentation are appam, idli, dosa and pazhankanji. The batter made of ground rice and black gram is left to ferment overnight before it is made into thick, round, or thin and crisp dosas. A slight tweak in the ratio of these two ingredients and the batter gets ready to be steamed into mini discs – idlis. One does not leave the land of peppercorns without tasting appam. These soft and moderately sweet hoppers make use of yeast, or toddy for fermentation, and each hands-out a distinct variant of the bread. The batter that is left to rise using yeast will yield Appams that have crisp and brown edges, while kallappams are small and thick with a sweet and faintly sour aftertaste, and these need not be swirled as it spreads itself.

With sustainability being the key to many cultures, the practice of preserving leftovers was prevalent. Pazhankanji, poita bhaat, pazhaya sadam, pakhala are different versions of fermented congee found across India. Throughout history, fermentation served as a way to preserve food, though not all preserved food commodities undergo fermentation.

Recent studies have shown that such naturally fermented foods contain probiotics, microbial food supplements, which have beneficial effects on the consumers. These live microorganisms are said to improve gut health by restoring gut bacteria to a healthy level. Our brain and body work best when everything is in balance. No single food provides one with all the nutrients needed, thus it is essential to eat a variety of food to attain that, there is no replacement for a balanced diet.

Information Courtesy: Chef Ratish Mehrotra

(The author is a food blogger and culinary enthusiast)

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