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The ferment about fermentation

Lucy Farmer on 2015’s big food trend

Lucy Farmer | January 12th 2015

Last Friday Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant voted the best in the world for the fourth time last year, relocated to Tokyo for a month. Its head chef René Redzepi and his team can normally be found foraging the Danish countryside for wood sorrel, wild mushrooms, spicy woodruff and the like to create their New Nordic cuisine. But for the Tokyo pop-up they’ll leave their usual ingredients at home and create a new menu using the fruits of the Japanese landscape.

I met Redzepi in late 2013. In person he’s warm, animated and fervent about food. When he talks about flavours he uses words like “insane”, “amazing” and “crazy good”. A lot. One area that really gets his superlatives going is fermentation—a process used in much Japanese cuisine (think soy sauce and miso). Noma has been fermenting anything and everything in its experimental test kitchen over the last couple of years, discovering flavours and liquids that can add new dimensions to a dish, like adding a dash of the juice from fermented wild berries to a broth to give it both more depth and tang. Redzepi told me when we met that fermentation would be the future of cooking because “the potential for exploring new flavours is insanely huge.” (Superlative? Check.) And he was right. Every food-trend report for 2015 predicts that this is the year when fermented foods will have their moment.

But it won’t be an easy sell. The word “fermented” brings to mind bacteria and fungus, goopy beige stuff and eye-watering gases. But fermented foods are more familiar than you think—fermentation is used to make your daily bread, your morning yoghurt, your evening beer, the sauerkraut on your hotdog, the lassi with your curry. Although annual food trends can be a fad, this one is part of a wider cultural shift away from processed foods and back towards eating whole foods. A new trend that is, in fact, ancient.

Fermentation is a slow process that converts sugar into acid (using bacteria) or alcohol (using yeast). To ferment vegetables you just need to add salt and cram them into an airtight container for several days; to make yoghurt, add a spoonful of live yoghurt, or “culture”, to milk and keep it warm; and for beer, add yeast to water, malt and hops. The micro-organisms work their biological magic to create flavours that are pungent, aromatic, savoury, salty and sour, giving us some of our most lipsmacking foods.

If the trend reports are right, foods like kimchi (fermented vegetables), tempeh (fermented soybeans), kefir (a fermented-milk drink) and mirin (fermented rice wine) will begin popping up on restaurant menus, supermarket shelves and in home cooking. The signs are already here. Recently a nutritionist introduced me to kombucha (cold fermented tea), suggesting it as a non-alcoholic and healthy alternative to drinking champagne over the festive season. It is straw-coloured, slightly effervescent, tart, dry and almost like champagne—but only almost. And last month I ate miso-glazed quail which had an “umami” flavour, that moreish savoury fifth taste which is uncommon in Western cuisine (but why we like parmesan on our Bolognese). As for DIY fermentation, I’m planning to try my hand at a batch of sauerkraut, which is entry-level stuff. Fermented foods are foods you take notice of—the kinds that Redzepi calls “crazy good”. So get ready for a more flavoursome 2015.

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