Illustration by Anastasia Markova

Don’t Fear the Funk

It’s not for everyone. Sour, funky, with just that slight twinge of danger. Taking a bite of a fermented food can sometimes feel a little bit like choosing a restaurant without checking Yelp first—excitingly terrifying. In an age where some people carry hand sanitizer in side holsters, and salad greens are recalled every other week for listeria, it would be easy to judge every bacteria by the same rule book. But fermented foods break all those rules—and it’s worth taking a walk on the wild side. After all, harnessing bacteria to create delicious treats is nothing new—hello, beer, wine, yogurt, CHEESE!

Resist the temptation to dismiss the corner kombucha stand at your farmer’s market as yet another weird hipster-fueled trend. Kombucha, a fermented tea, has been around for thousands of years—like its cousins kimchi and sourdough bread. And what we’re rediscovering is not just their tastiness, but their incredible health benefits as well.

Fermented foods are teeming with live bacteria, or probiotics, which make for happy tummies. Simply put, we’ve been attacking the balance of our digestive tracts with a deluge of antibiotic drugs, refined sugar, factory-raised meat, and processed foods. This imbalance means too much bad bacteria in your gut, which leads to constipation, bloating, and inflammation-related conditions. Not good. Get that imbalance in check, and you’re on your way to improved immunity and digestion—and you’re probably also a lot more pleasant to be around.

It seems contradictory that funky smelling, bacteria-ridden foods are good for you, in fact BETTER for you, than their ostensibly pristine counterparts. Kimchi, an example of wild fermentation, is essentially napa cabbage, doused in salt (good bacteria can survive the salt, bad bacteria can’t), and fermented for weeks, traditionally underground, in a ceramic pot. The results are more nutritious than its fresh-from-the-garden raw form. This is because fermentation, in actuality, helps food to retain more of the vitamins and enzymes that are typically destroyed when exposed to heat. Even better, the active cultures that are present during the fermentation process generate and release more nutrients that our body typically can’t absorb from the raw version. It’s a nutritional double-whammy.

The most common probiotic found in kimchi is called lactobacilli, which you might recognize from the side of yogurt containers—only kimchi has on average 1,000 times more lactobacillus than yogurt, not to mention tons of antioxidants. Bonus: it’s garlicky, chili-laced pungency tastes amazing on scrambled eggs, blended into hummus, or just straight out of the jar.

Kombucha is another weird one. Just Google “kombucha scoby.” It certainly doesn’t look like anything we’re meant to ingest. Similar to a vinegar mother, this alien-looking glob of goo is actually a hub of sugar-loving yeast and bacteria. When it’s introduced to sweetened tea, the yeasts eat the sugar and result in alcohol and carbon dioxide, hence the pleasant tang and fizz, not to mention all the resulting probiotics that your digestion will thank you for.

Anyone conscious during the last 5-10 years is aware of the gluten-free craze. But what you might not realize is some people have discovered that not all gluten is created equal. In fact, wheat products may not always be to blame for the intolerances and sickness that some experience. Sourdough bread may in fact be the answer. Like kombucha, true sourdough bread is the result of a cultured yeast. If you’ve ever kept a goldfish alive for more than a few weeks, you can create your own sourdough starter at home. All you need is some organic flour, filtered water, and patience. Like a small baby, your starter needs regular feedings and comfortable temperatures, and when it’s ready, you can create a loaf of bread full of craggy holes, tang, and chew—and potentially friendly even for the most gluten-intolerant amongst you.

Wild yeast and bacteria are the key to delicious sourdough, and it’s everywhere. On our hands, in the air, attached to organic flour particles. Commercial yeast was developed as a shortcut, a more predictable and manageable way to produce bread for the masses, whereas wild yeast is just that—wild. But with its unpredictability comes personality, depth, and flavor. And it’s not just a pretty face: the hustle and bustle of the wild yeasts merging with flour and water results in a wheat product that is more digestible and good for you—so much so, that many gluten-intolerant people find they can enjoy sourdough without discomfort.

Some have referred to eating fermented foods as a sort of oil change for your digestion system. Thankfully, snacking on sourdough toast topped with avocado and kimchi is a much more pleasant thought when it comes to hitting reset on your stomach. And even if you’re less worried about the nutrition side of things, there’s something to be said for tapping into methods of food prep that have been honed over thousands of years.