Food can give you insight into cultural and culinary traditions from around the world. Every part of the world has had a fermented food to be proud of. From beverages and breads to vegetables and fruits to meats and milk, there is often a whole culture and ritual behind these fascinating fermentations.
Mesoamerica: Calling all chocolate lovers!
Fermentation is essential to making delicious and tasty chocolate. The history of chocolate began with the Mayan civilization. The cacao tree grows in the tropics and produces a long fruit pod that, when ripe, is yellowish in color and contains anywhere from 20 to 30 cacao beans, or seeds, surrounded by a delicious white, fruity pulp.
The seeds are left inside the white pulp to ferment and begin changing the chemical compound and releasing the flavor of chocolate that you know and love into the beans. These seeds are what is harvested and processed to make chocolate.
Some cultures used the fruit pulp alone to make a fermented, slightly alcoholic drink consumed by Aztec warriors and aristocrats. Although some chocolate is made using unfermented cacao beans, the most flavorful and least bitter chocolate is born from fermentation. Cacao beans were so valuable in Mayan civilization that they were even used as a form of barter and currency!
Africa: Turning toxins into edible tubers
The cassava root is consumed in many parts of the world but has a strong presence in Africa. It is very rich in starch, a great calorie filler, and a relatively cheap market item. This staple food is abundant locally and cooked in many different ways.
Deep-fried, steamed, boiled, or fermented, cassava can be sweet or savory. It needs to be fermented or cooked because it contains an amount of cyanide that's unpalatable and toxic to human consumption. Gari is the name for the common fermented cereal made from cassava, which could be compared to North American oatmeal, only fermented.
Asia: Thirst-quenching and candied culture
Kombucha is one of the strangest-looking fermentations, as it is done using a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeasts) and appears rubbery in nature when growing. When placed in the correct environment, the combination of a SCOBY with tea and sugar creates an ancient health drink, kombucha, a fermented tea that is said to have originated in Central Asia.
When drunk in moderation, kombucha has a wide range of health benefits. In some cases, the SCOBY alone is even candied by adding lots of sugar. Today, kombucha is becoming widely recognized among health food shops and within new-age environments.
Eastern Europe and Russia: Bubbly fruit kvass
Kvass is the Eastern European version of Asian kombucha. It's a fermented beverage that's most commonly made from rye, though other yeasts and fruits can be used. It has a low alcohol percentage and has been a common drink in Eastern Europe, and especially Russia, for centuries. In many cases throughout their patriotic history, people have chosen kvass over Coca-Cola!
Japan: The sensational soybean
The soybean has become a widely cultivated and commonly distributed fermented food product. Tofu, tempeh, miso, and soy sauce are among the most recognized fermented soy goods, which originated in East Asia.
The soybean itself has been cultivated around the globe and is a major industrialized food that serves populations worldwide. Although many people have problems with soy allergies, in moderation the fermented soybean can actually enhance digestibility, reduce gas and bloating, and add beneficial flora to a person's diet.