By ALANA AL-HATLANI The Sunrise Market, hidden on the second floor of a non-descript building in the East Village, is packed on a Sunday morning. A steady buzz of afternoon shoppers crowd the tight aisles lined with shelves displaying imported Asian foods. Many of the imports are fermented products, whose names, once unknown, ring familiar to even the casual foodie, “kombucha,” “kimchi,” “koji.”
Thanks to a combination of bacteria and time, all three foods are pungent, bitter, and acidic. Despite their strong tastes, they have become wildly popular—no longer only available at specialty markets like this one. Whole Foods displays a wall of 11 different kombuchas, from peach to goji berry. For the do-it-yourselfer, there’s a display of mason jars, cheese cloth, and cultured yeast. At check-out, is the inaugural issue of Cured magazine, an entire publication devoted to fermenting, preserving, and curing food.
But nothing about the revival feels old-school, from the Pinterest pages to its encouragement of sustainable, local eating. Subscribers to the movement are young, often millennials, with diverse food tastes, integrating ancient recipes from all over the world into modern cuisine. To preserve not only cabbage, but the land it’s grown on. In cute mason jars, no less.
Beginning in Brooklyn
With Pinterest providing 1000+ ideas on ways to ferment, communities in real life are sharing the experience of all things fermented. At Brooklyn Kitchen, a popular cooking school in NYC, new classes offer to teach how to use koji or make homemade kombucha and kimchi. The classes quickly sell-out, even at $85-$115 per person.
For a cheaper way to learn how to ferment, many have turned to Meetup, a site coordinating in-person meet-ups for different hobbyists, from bird watching to salsa dancing.
NYC ferments, is a 500 member Meetup group sharing fermented foods, troubleshooting fermentation projects, and holding workshops. As one of the most popular Meetup groups in NYC, their monthly events, open to both beginners and experts, include kombucha happy hour, winter harvest fermentation, and fermenting-themed book talks. “Each month there is a theme, this month its everything koji” says Cheryl Paswater, co-leader of NYC Ferments.
Last month at the Brooklyn Expo Center they organized the first NYC fermentation festival, celebrating all the stinky alchemy behind sauerkraut, pickles, beer and more obscure fermented products like tempeh (fermented soybeans). The event drew more than 800 people. A similar festival, already in its third year, was held over the summer in Boston by the Boston Ferments chapter.
Paswater, like many fermenters, got interested in fermentation for health reasons. After struggling with immunity issues and severe asthma, she turned to holistic medicine. Without health insurance, she had to sell all her music gear (she played in a punk band) to afford an appointment.
With the help of a holistic medicine specialist, she changed her diet and learned about the power of good bacteria in fermented foods, which she believes helped rebuild her immune system. “It’s funny because all cultures do this (ferment) but not the U.S., and we are the sickest,” says Paswater. Shortly after as she entered graduate school for visual arts, she started a fermentation CSA (community supported agriculture), a program that provides city residents access to high quality, fresh produce from local farms, to pay her way through school. Now at 39, she teaches fermenting classes as a health coach, writes about fermenting for Edible magazine, and runs her own small business, Contraband Ferments, which sells her fermented goods and provides fermentation workshops. At home, she experiments with new ways to use fermenting, from fermented fried chicken to sourdough chocolate cake.
Kombucha, for the uninitiated, is a fermented, slightly effervescent, tea drink—often lauded as a healthier caffeine alternative for coffee. Many attribute improved digestion, mental clarity, and mood stability to the drink despite no confirmed studies to support it.
Kimchi, is a fermented spicy cabbage condiment used in Korean food that now tops everything from quesadillas to burgers, but is also known to be rich in probiotics.
Koji, perhaps the newest fermentation trend, is actually a mold that converts sugars and proteins into products including soy sauce and miso. More recently, the ancient Japanese ingredient has become a part of American cuisine as meat tenderizer and as a healthy salt alternative.
Aside from health benefits, fermenting has also been popularized for its environmental sustainability. Students at NYU started “pickling with professors,” for that exact reason: pickling is an easy way to eat seasonally and avoid the environmental costs of transporting off-season produce long distances to the market. Four student leaders and a professor teach other students how to prepare fermented foods, like kimchi. Each student makes two jars, one to take home and the second for the “Pickle Pantry”—a collection of non-perishable and healthy preserved foods that will feed students in need on campus.
A Little History
Fermentation is nothing new—it’s actually incredibly old. Believed to date back to the Neolithic era and documented as early at 7000 B.C. in China. Fermented foods gained religious importance in Judaism and Christianity; there was even a Baltic god of fermentation named, Rugutis. Fermenting was used without a proper name or explanation until the 1850s when Louis Pasteur, the father of pasteurization, demonstrated how living organisms create fermentation in his investigation of sour milk.
In the U.S., fermentation was limited to sourdough, buttermilk, and beer, all seldom crafted at home. Canning was popular during the Great Depression through World War II, but as refrigeration and food processing increased in the 1950s and 1960s home fermentation, along with canning declined. As chef and zymologist (fermentation scientist) Jason Umansky says, “The availability of convenience foods, advent of refrigerated technologies, knowledge lost through generations, the green revolution, and an industrialized food system are all contributing factors.”
While fermentation at home may have declined, it never really disappeared, “It’s a maligned perception that we don’t embrace fermented foods. We embrace them so intently that it’s become a subconscious action for many people. Bread, cheese, cured meats, chocolate, coffee, and tea are all familial fermented foods,” says Umansky.
Inspired to start fermenting at home? Just follow the basic ratios, “Take any plant material, mix it with 2-3% salt by weight, pack it in a jar, and then wait for it to ferment to taste,” says Umansky. Worried something may have gone wrong? Paswater says not to be alarmed, “Funk is not bad. Mold is fine too as long as it’s not red, black or neon.”
Fermenting, like a lot of DIY, is cheap, as it can be done in big batches with little equipment. Commercial fermented products, are much more expensive. An average single serving bottle of kombucha, for example, is $3.99, and commercial Kombucha is estimated to continue to grow into a $1.8 billion industry by 2020 according to a 2015 Micromarket Research Monitor report.
But for $4 you can make gallons of homemade kombucha, if you’re willing to spare the time. Time well spent however, as a project you start today, with proper care, can be passed down the family tree, “I have several ferments turning ten this year. I’m hoping to keep them around long enough to give my grandchildren,” says Umansky.