Cultured food from may cultures make for happy digestive tract

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The closing of October marks the end of the Walla Walla Farmers' Market for the year, so I made sure to attend the last Saturday market. It was a picture perfect autumn morning - brightly colored leaves, azure-blue sky and everyone dressed in warm hats and puffy jackets.

Off in the corner of the market, an old white truck had its tailgate down. Inside were beautiful giant green cabbages, larger than I had ever seen before. Alongside them lay gorgeous purple cauliflower, just as big and stunning.

"Better get some before they're all gone!" Amiee, the market manager, told me.

I don't know if you've ever actually cut up a cabbage and realized how a little bit goes a long way, but a standard grocery store cabbage in our house can last us a few weeks worth of soup, coleslaw and sauteing. And this guy, at least three times the size of a normal cabbage?! Well, I'd better have a plan for it before buying.

Then it came to me: I'll make a batch of kimchi! Maybe some sauerkraut too!

Sure, a person can go out an buy jars of kimchi or sauerkraut, but a little lesson about the benefits of fermented vegetables will make you understand the difference between homemade and store-bought.

Before traditional canning methods, people in earlier times would preserve vegetables through the process of lacto-fermentation. Lacto-fermentation happens when the starches and sugars in vegetables and fruit convert to lactic acid with the help of a friendly bacteria called lactobacilli. They are found on the surface of all living things but they are especially prolific on the leaves and roots of plants growing in or near the ground.

The lactic acid they produce not only preserves vegetables and fruit perfectly, but also promotes the growth of healthy flora in the intestines. Kind of like yogurt. The proliferation of lactobacilli in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and increases vitamin levels, as well as producing helpful enzymes and antibiotic substances.

Lacto-fermentation is a craft that does not work well in industrialized manufacturing. Results are not always uniform or predictable. So mass manufacturing uses vinegar rather than a natural brining process, making a more acidic product that is not good in large quantities. Then they pasteurize it, killing off all the lactic-acid producing bacteria and robbing consumers of the beneficial effect on digestion and health.

Cultures around the world understand the importance of lacto-fermented fruits and vegetables and have made it a staple in their traditional diets. In Europe, the principle lacto-fermentated food is sauerkraut. In Russia and Poland one finds pickled green tomatoes, peppers and lettuces. In Korea, clay pots full of kimchi line kitchen terraces, as it the most common side dish of the country. In Japan, no meal is complete without a portion of pickled vegetable, be it radish, cucumber, turnip or carrot.

People in India traditionally ferment fruit with spices to make chutneys. Indonesians eat tempeh, a soy product, and in Africa people enjoy a porridge of fermented millet.

Even here in America, we have many types of relish - corn relish, cucumber relish, watermelon rind -all of which were no doubt originally lacto-fermentated products.

Scientists are mystified by the proliferation of new viruses and pathogens today. Even with today's extreme sanitary practices, we have increase in intestinal parasites and maladies. Could it be that abandoning the ancient practice of lacto-fermentation and insistence in pasteurizing everything has compromised the health of our intestinal flora and made us vulnerable to a variety of pathogenic microorganisms?

Maybe. If so, a return to traditional ways of lacto-fermentation cannot hurt and might even be an answer. Give it a go and reap the benefits of a happy tummy.

If you aren't as adventurous or just don't have time or interest in making your own lacto-fermentated foods, there is hope. A local gentleman, Vince Booth is making lacto-fermented pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi. His Booth's Brine Co. products are available at Blue Valley Meats.

Or you can try including more active cultured dairy products into your diet. Yogurts, kefir, and raw milk all have active cultures and include similar benefits as those found in lacto-fermentated foods. Just make sure to read your labels to verify it says "active cultures".

Melissa Davis is a local chef with a bachelor's degree in nutrition. Contact her at jadenluna@gmail.com. More of her writing is at www.melissadavisfood.wordpress.com.
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Lacto-fermented kimchi

  • 1 roughly chopped head of napa cabbage
  • 1 thinly sliced daikon
  • 6 thinly sliced carrots

Add them to a large pot of salty water (brine). Let them sit, covered for a day.

After a day, removed the vegetables from the brine. Taste to test saltiness. If it's too salty, rinse.

Then, puree together:

  • 1 good size chunk of ginger
  • 6 garlic cloves
  • 1 bunch of green onion
  • 1/4 cup red chili flakes
  • 3 tablespoons whey (optional)
  • A few squirts of fish sauce

Add this paste to the drained veggies and incorporate fully. Pack into sterilized mason jars and press down until the juices came to the top. Try to keep all vegetables under the brine. Cover with a plastic locking bag, press down, and place a smaller jar on top of the plastic inside the vegetable container. Fill the smaller jar with water to weigh down the vegetables. Let sit for a week, checking on them occasionally to change the water and pack the vegetables down a little more. At the end of the week, lid them and put in fridge. It will keep for many months.

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