Even though I’m not Korean, I grew up in a home that always had kimchi around. Which is not at all common for a Filipino household. But my mother happened to have a recipe of that favorite delicacy of our Asian neighbors, and she enjoyed preparing it during the cool months of December to February, when fresh vegetables would come down from the northern mountains of Luzon to the capital of Manila, cheap and plentiful.
I would see huge jars of Chinese white (napa) cabbage, radish, cucumber, carrot, scallions, peppers and ginger, all sliced, mixed together and soaked in brine, sitting on our kitchen counter to pickle for a few days. All the while my dad would ask during mealtimes, “Is the kimchi ready yet?” hoping he’d get a yes and be allowed to have some of that pungent yet deliciously sour, spicy relish.
I never did enjoy kimchi or any other pickled vegetable at the time. I only started eating them as an adult and would look for kimchi when eating dishes with thick sauce like chicken, pork or fish in tomato sauce. I also grew to appreciate atsara (pickled green papaya), which is often served in the Philippines alongside barbecued chicken.
Now, with the increasing popularity of probiotic foods, from kefir to kombucha (a fizzy drink of fermented black tea), I and many others who enjoy healthy eating are becoming more and more intrigued by the benefits of pickled foods.
Pickling and Fermentation Explained
Pickling and fermentation are ancient food preservation methods used as early as 5000 years ago. They were used to make food last through the winter months, and brought along on voyages around the word, especially by sea. Captain Cook was said to have used sauerkraut to prevent scurvy among his sailors.
Simple pickling involves the use of brine or an acidic solution like vinegar. From cucumbers, the most common type of pickled vegetable, to meats and fish, pickled foods usually have a salty or a sour, tangy taste — or both. Most commercial pickles we buy in grocery stores today are processed in high heat and pressure, though, killing all live bacteria present. They’re also added with a chemical preservative called sodium benzoate (or EDTA) to make them shelf-stable. These pasteurized, mass-produced pickles are usually bereft of the nutritional value.
Fermentation pickling, however, involves “self-preservation” of foods using brine and their very own preservation agents: the naturally occurring yeasts, molds and lactobacilli — the good bacteria found on the surface of living matter. As the food ferments, an organic byproduct called lactic acid is released along with digestive enzymes, Omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins and immune chemicals that repel pathogenic bacteria including cancer cells. These are what make them probiotic.
Fermented foods that do not go through pasteurization retain these live microorganisms, thereby being given the nickname “living foods.” Some of the best-loved, age-old examples of traditionally fermented foods are wine, beer, cider, vinegar, yogurt, seasoned and well-aged cheeses, sourdough, chutneys and miso. In the case of alcoholic drinks, the sugars in fruits and grains are fermented using yeast rather than bacteria – juice becomes wine; wheat and barley become beer.
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Pickled vegetables, when traditionally fermented in brine and lactic acid and not pasteurized, are probiotic.These are the olives, capers and sauerkraut we find at delicatessens or the refrigerated section of health food stores (not the shelf-stable variety in the middle aisles of grocery stores), or the kind that is prepared at home.
Dead Food vs. Live Food
Food writer, journalist and activist Michael Pollan says public health is obsessed with the fight against bacteria. “But 99.9 percent are benign, and a great number of them are also in a symbiotic relationship with us. They help us, and we need them,” he told the Daily Mail.
The problem with the modern, Western diet today is that dead, heavily processed foods have overtaken live, enzyme-rich foods. Antibiotic-laden meats, cooked vegetables, pesticide-sprayed fruits, pasteurized milk, anti-nutrient-filled grains. Even water for drinking is chlorinated, fluoridated, distilled or filtered. Everything is sanitized, and all bacteria – good AND bad—are dead.
Effectively, our guts have lost the beneficial bacteria they need to properly digest and absorb the nutrients we ingest. Fermented foods expert Sally Fallon suggests that despite ubiquitous sanitation, “Could it be that by abandoning the ancient practice of lacto-fermentation, and insisting on a diet in which everything has been pasteurized, we have compromised the health of our intestinal flora and made ourselves vulnerable to legions of pathogenic microorganisms?”
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Indeed, a combination of bad diet, stress, antibiotics and other factors can create an imbalance of bad bacteria, according to acupuncture and oriental medicine expert Grace Suh Coscia. These can cause fatigue, diarrhea, inflammation, headaches and strong cravings for sweets.
This bacterial imbalance, called dysbiosis, is common in Western society thanks to diets high in sugar and meat, but low in probiotics, says the wellness website Akealife.com. Dysbiosis encourages yeasts and putrefactive bacteria to flourish, instead of fermentative beneficial bacteria. In turn, toxins build up and damage the lining of our intestinal wall. Other side-effects are inflammation of the gut and leaky gut syndrome, leading to conditions such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Allergies, systemic candida, eczema, autoimmune disease, arthritis and even mental illness have all been linked to dysbiosis.
Lacto-fermented foods, with their active cultures of good bacteria, can populate and bring back the balance of friendly flora in our guts. Alison Clark of the British Dietetic Association told the Daily Mail that 70-80 percent of our immune cells are in the gut. “Fermented foods stimulate bacteria that help with immunity. So for someone who suffers with lots of coughs and colds, they could help. We also know that a food that’s high in probiotics could help control the symptoms of things such as bloating, IBS and flatulence.”
Fermentation breaks down the complex carbohydrates, proteins and fats of food and turn them into simple substances that are much easier for our stomachs to digest. They also improve the digestibility of even the cooked foods that are consumed along with them.
The website Green Med Info lists over 100 articles and studies that cover more than 170 illnesses being helped by probiotics, including everything from allergies to heart disease, dental carries to obesity.
How to Get Probiotics in Your Body
One to three servings of fermented foods a day will get you on the right track to better health. Incorporate them into your diet whenever you can. Opt for sourdough bread rather than regular bread, go for yogurt, kefir or raw milk instead of regular pasteurized, and reach for kombucha in place of soda or plain tea. Use naturally fermented condiments like lacto-fermented ketchup, salsa, non-GMO soy sauce and Thai fish sauce.
You don’t even have to buy them all the time, it’s easy enough to make them yourself. You can prepare sauerkraut in your kitchen with just cabbage, salt and water; ketchup and salsa if you have a surplus of tomatoes and peppers and kimchi if you have an abundance of different veggies.