Fermented Foods: Tasty and Healthy Delights from Different Cultures

A bowl of freshly made kimchi, a traditional Korean appetizer, featuring seasoned and fermented cabbage with a mix of spices and herbs, presented on a woven mat with a pair of wooden chopsticks on the side.
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Throughout history, cultures the world over have used fermentation to enhance nutrition and derive other unique qualities from foods. Historically, fermentation was also an important means of extending a food’s life unaided by refrigeration. It’s said laborers building the Great Wall of China invented sauerkraut to secure a food source during the non-growing season. Beer was originally an almost liquified, nutrient-dense bread, made from fermented wheat and other grains.

Today, fermented foods are well-known for their probiotic-rich content, making them an important staple for digestive health. There are also more fermented foods available than ever – especially from a good neighborhood international grocer!

There are many fermentation processes, but all center around pretreating foods ad setting the conditions necessary for microbes to break down sugars and produce new digestible compounds. Fermentation is possible for a wide variety of foods, including dairy, fruits, vegetables, and even liquids (such as beer, wine, and kombucha). Some methods require several stages of fermentation, and depending on the product or potency desired, the total process can range anywhere from days to even months!

Fermented foods often have a distinct flavor profile, ranging from sour and acidic to malty and earthy (or anywhere in between). Typically, fermentation also achieves greater nutritional value and extends the product’s lifespan.

Asian cuisine uses fermented foods as a staple more prominently than perhaps any other culture today. Consider these widely known dietary staples from across the Asian subcontinent:

  • Kimchi, from Korea, prepared from napa cabbage and raddish, and sometimes spring onions, ginger, and garlic. Koreans eat kimchi with almost every meal, and it’s no wonder – some of kimchi’s health benefits include improved gut and heart health, reduced blood pressure, and greater blood sugar control. You can find this dish at almost any asian grocery store.
  • Miso and Natto, different fermented soy products, are traditional Japanese staples found on authentic Japanese menus the world over. You can also find quick-and-easy miso soup paste in the cooler of a well-stocked Asian market. For a particularly high potency, miso can take up to months to ferment.
  • Dahi, an Indian yogurt, has been used for millennia. The term likely originates from the ancient Sanskrit word ‘dadhi,’ which means “sour” (as it certainly is). Indians have long eaten Dahi either on its own, after meals, or incorporated it into other concoctions, including a salty and sweet drink called lassi or a buttermilk dish known as chaas.

Sauerkraut is perhaps the best known fermented food in European cultures, and it’s become a staple of German cuisine. It’s also very easy to make sauerkraut at home, by shredding and salting cabbage, then kneading until you produce a small amount of liquid. This becomes the brine. Weigh the cabbage so it remains under the brine (plus salt water, if needed), leave the concoction at room temperature for several, and voilà!

Many more grocers in American have begun carrying kefir, a fermented dairy product from Eastern Europe. Depending on its use, you might consider kefir to be a thick beverage or a thin yogurt, and with many of the same health benefits. Eastern Europe is also responsible for creating kvass, a fermented beverage resembling a thin, light beer.

Of course, this list would be incomplete without French cheese, a broad category of fermented cheeses with uniquely soft, crumbling textures, found in a wide range of deluxe cheese dishes. And then there’s the wildly popular kombucha, which – while its origins are disputed – was most heavily researched and documented by Russian scientists (although many say it originates from China).

Believe it or not, Mexican salsas and hot sauces originate from fermentation processes, which many still use today. If you’ve ever remarked that a particular salsa was surprisingly sour or acidic, you were likely experiencing a fermented variety.

There are also several underrated options from South America, including chicha. A fermented corn beverage, Chicha originates from the Peruvian Andes, and had a social/cultural significance similar to beer. There are several varieties of chicha, some of which include boiled pineapple rind, lemon or lime, cloves, and/or cinnamon.

Then there’s the quintessential American mainstay, the pickle. While its origins are credited with ancient Mesopotamia, circa 2400 BC, the pickle achieved the popularity it has today largely because Dutch cucumber farmers established one of the world’s largest pickle industries in what became Brooklyn, New York.

Every continent has used fermentation, including these standout examples from Africa:

  • Injera, an Ethiopian flatbread made of fermented teff flour, an already highly nutritious grain. It becomes all the more so after fermentation, which gives the bread a spongy and pleasantly chewy texture.
  • Uziza, a peppery tropical herb which, after being fermented, finds its way into many West African condiments and soups.
  • Dawadawa, the fermented seeds of West African locust bean treas, often used in desserts due to its sweet and savory flavor.

Fermented foods carry numerous health benefits, especially their support for the gut microbiome. Further, the fermentation process often boosts the original food’s nutrient profile, which can give certain fermented foods and beverages potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Today, it’s very easy to increase the amount of fermented foods in your diet, given the wide array of choices available in a single location – if you have a quality international grocer where you live!

At International Fresh Market, we recommend keeping your eyes out for fermented foods as you shop. You’ll gradually learn which options are most affordable and widely available – and don’t hesitate to ask us for assistance finding more exotic, lesser-known fermented foods, drinks, and sauces.

Because we’re always rotating our stock with new delicacies, you’re bound to find something new and adventurous during almost every visit.

We love helping Chicagoland communities sate their curiosities while expanding their taste sensations. Choosing more fermented foods opens new vistas of culinary explorations, while deepening your appreciation for humankind’s love affair with food and improving your health in the process.

Visit International Fresh Market to stock up on probiotic-rich foods, and treat your gut to the same support it provides you day in and day out.

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International Fresh Market

International Fresh Market is a local, family-owned grocery store that serves the Chicagoland community.We are excited to serve the residents of Naperville, Aurora, Warrenville, Woodridge, Plainfield and the surrounding area!