It’s been happening more and more recently. Every time we have friends over in the evening, they seem intrigued by the “special” dinner I prepare for myself. Alongside all the dishes we put on the table, there’s always MY tray, with a bowl of soup, some eggs, avocado, weird mushy things, and a suspicious jar. The moment I open the jar, the curiosity in the eyes of our guests is instantly transformed… into horror, shooting thunderbolts that scream “what the f*** is that?!?”. I’m starting to get used to that sequence, yet I’m never bored to see the reaction on people’s faces when the stink trapped inside the jar hits their nostrils. They’re thinking “Is she really gonna eat that?”…
“Would you like to try some?” I backfire. “It’s fermented fish” I answer right before they ask.
Very few are the valiant souls who actually accept the offer (not to say “take on the challenge”). I have to admit that “fermented fish” does sound nasty, especially if you add the stink to it. Well, let me assure you that the stink doesn’t come from the fish itself, but from the onion. And let me also tell you that those who did give the fermented fish a try were all surprised at the taste. It is one that’s quite unusual and that really piques the palate. But it doesn’t take long to make you utter a profound and pensive “Mmmmm…“. Quickly, you need to take another bite and further explore that uncharted flavour. It is an acquired taste, that’s obvious. Reminds me when I first tried sushi – except that this marine delicacy is way more pungent.
Soon enough you realize that, like sushi, fermented fish is a real delight. And like sushi, it is one of the best ways to consume fish. The traditional and most ancient form of sushi (known today as narezushi) dates back to the 8th century AD and consisted in lacto-fermented rice and fish. What had started as a method for food preservation quickly became part of Japanese cuisine. But this is not an isolated phenomenon: over millenia and across the globe, civilizations have developed a multitude of fermentation techniques, which made fermentation a standard in human cuisine in a global sense. Wine, yoghurt, kefir, leavened bread, pickles, miso, soy sauce, sauerkraut, are just a few of the fermented specialties that come to mind.
In addition to conservation (which was essential before our technology-served society), fermentation has been shown to offer many nutritional benefits: by coaxing micro-organisms into producing enzymes, anti-nutrients as well as complex compounds are degraded, making food easier for the body to assimilate, or edible when it’s not. Fermentation also naturally enriches the food with essential amino-acids and fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and bioactive compounds, vital for healthy digestive and immune functions. “Naturally” is an important nuance: synthetic vitamins and nutrients found in “fortified” foods are NOT assimilated by our body as good as the naturally occurring ones. Furthermore, when it comes to commercial fermented goods, the modern techniques used in manufacturing kill off most of the key bacteria, short-circuiting their much-needed contribution to our intestinal and overall health.
Fermented foods are our most potent source of beneficial bacteria (without which so many of our vital function would not be possible, mind you). The production and consumption of traditional fermented food is declining with the growing industrialization, and the knowledge of real fermented food making is getting lost.
If you’d like to learn more about fermentation, you may want to check out this book “Fermented Foods and Beverages of the World” (CRC Press, 2010) – which I intend to order soon.
I would also highly encourage you to read this brilliantly written article on Mark’s Daily Apple “The Definitive Guide to Fermented Foods“; it presents an interesting angle on the status of bacteria along history, especially in our modern times, in a delightful vitriolic style. You’ll be looking at micro-organisms with brand new eyes!
At home and on a regular basis, I’ve been making a vast array of fermented foods from scratch, and including them in my daily diet. I look forward to share with you this “wisdom”. I will start with the following recipes, based on Dr Natasha Campbell–McBride’s guidelines oultinesd in her book “Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS™)“. The first one is fermented fish, and uses whatever type of fish you fancy (cold water oily fish give great results). It requires 3 to 5 days fermentation, and you’ll end up with a (stinky) jar to add to your collection of pickles. The second recipe is Swedish Gravlax (which is cured salmon) and can be ready in only 1-4 hours.
- About 300 g of your choice of fish, cleaned and cut into strips
- 1 tsp. black peppercorns roughly crushed
- 1 small white onion
- 1 leveled tsp. coriander seeds
- 4 to 5 bay leaves
- ½ tsp dill seeds, or several sprigs if using fresh herb
- 1½ cup mineral water
- 3 tbsp starter (you can use homemade whey or kefir)
- 1 tsp unrefined sea salt
(You can vary amounts accordingly)
- Slice onion and dill
- Lay the pieces of fish inside the jar, throwing in the pepper, coriander seeds, bay leaves, dill, and onions along the way.
- In a separate jug, mix the water, salt and starter to make the brine.
- Pour this brine into the pickle jar until the fish is completely covered (add more water to make sure it is, otherwise it may rot).
- Close the jar tightly and leave to ferment for 3-5 days at a room temperature, then store in the fridge (for up to 5 days).
- About 500 g fresh salmon, cleaned and cut into thin strips (ideally 0.5 cm)
- Coarsely ground black and green peppercorn to taste
- Fresh dill to taste
- 1 tbsp honey
- 1½ tbsp unrefined sea salt
- 1 L mineral water
(You can vary amounts accordingly)
- Place salmon strips in a deep tray.
- Sprinkle with pepper and dill (finely chopped or whole sprigs).
- Dissolve the salt and honey in the water.
- Cover the fish with that brine, and leave at room temperature for 1 – 4 hours (depending on the ambient temperature and the strips’ thickness).
- Pour the water out and serve, or store in a sealed box for up to 3 days.
Click on photos for a larger view / slideshow