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Mmm kimchi and other fermented foods!!!!

  Here are a couple of articles on kim chee, kim chi, kim che or however you spell it and other fermented foods.


Better Eating, Thanks to Bacteria

Fermentation Guru Seeks Out New (and Old) Flavors

Erik Jacobs for The New York Times


Published: September 17, 2012

“Oh, this is nice kimchi,” he said on a summer afternoon at Momofuku Noodle Bar, using chopsticks to pull crimson-coated knuckles of Napa cabbage from a jar. “I like the texture of the sauce. It’s kind of thick.”

Kimchi, like sauerkraut, is one of the world’s great fermented foods, and Mr. Katz, a resident of Tennessee, was curious to see what David Chang’s team of cooks in the East Village would do with it. Lately Mr. Katz has become for fermentation what Timothy Leary was for psychedelic drugs: a charismatic, consciousness-raising thinker and advocate who wants people to see the world in a new way.

A fermented food is one whose taste and texture have been transformed by the introduction of beneficial bacteria or fungi. And Mr. Katz, who turned 50 this year, considers it a big part of his mission to remind us that the tangy delights of that metamorphosis surround us — and always have, if you look back at the arc of human evolution.

“I don’t believe there’s a restaurant in the world that doesn’t have products of fermentation on their menu,” Mr. Katz said. “If you have bread, you have fermented food. If you have cheese, you have fermented food. If you have salad dressing or anything with vinegar in it, you have fermented food. If you have alcoholic beverages, you have fermented food. I mean, you really can’t get through the day without eating something fermented.”

Nevertheless Mr. Katz, whose latest book, “The Art of Fermentation” (Chelsea Green), recently went into its third printing, maintains a special fondness for the funkiest manifestations from around the world. “When I walk into a restaurant, I peruse the menu to see if they have any special ferments,” he said.

He was in luck at Momofuku, where the crew, led by Mr. Chang, prides itself on exploring new microbial pathways. Tim Dailey, a sous-chef at the Noodle Bar, brought Mr. Katz a glass of an amber-hued German-style helles beer that he had brewed (and that is not regularly served at the restaurant). There were pickles, too, and an egg marinated in soy sauce; a summer-squash salad that had been laced with white kimchi (that is, a kimchi without the usual spicy creek of red chile pepper running through it); and an assortment of warm fungi arrayed upon a pool of black-garlic yogurt.

“Oh wow, what’s that?” Mr. Katz asked when that last dish arrived.

“It’s a mushroom salad,” Mr. Dailey said.

To share a meal with Mr. Katz is to be reminded that you are sharing it with a vast army of invisible dining companions. As he dug into the mushrooms and yogurt, he talked about a recent study, the Human Microbiome Project, that has deepened the understanding of how our bodies are occupied by “trillions of bacteria,” most of which appear to be committed to the noble enterprise of keeping us healthy and functioning.

Mr. Katz believes that fermented foods help replenish a diverse variety of probiotic bacteria in our guts, and his interest in the topic can be traced back to a health crisis of his own. In 1991, while working in New York City politics, he learned that he had contracted H.I.V.

Suddenly unsure of how many healthy years he had left, but certain that he didn’t want to squander them trudging through stress-throttled 80-hour workweeks, he moved to a rural commune in Tennessee. “I didn’t have experience as a gardener, but that was something I was interested in pursuing when I got there,” he said. “I felt myself called by plants.”

Blame bumper crops of cabbage for his fermentation fixation: Since he had to do something with the cabbage before it rotted, he soon found himself making sauerkraut, and learning more and more about its health benefits and the role that preserved vegetables had played in the course of civilization.

“Agriculture doesn’t make sense without ways of storing the harvest,” he said. “Stuff happens when you try to store food, or inadvertently let food sit around. Just as our bodies are covered with microorganisms, everything we eat is covered with microorganisms.” (Still, Mr. Katz often stresses that fermented food hasn’t “cured” him of H.I.V., although he does think it’s possible that friendly bacteria have helped reduce some side effects of the medications he takes.)

If, as books by other authors have argued, cod changed the world and the Irish saved civilization, Mr. Katz’s work often brushes up against the idea that the discovery of fermentation provided a crucial step in human evolution. We ate, we drank, we changed.

“It seems likely that our primate ancestors were familiar with fermenting berries and were even familiar with the phenomenon of inebriation,” he said. Human beings “figured out how to liquefy the berries and make beverages,” spurring the development of both pottery and poetry.

There’s no denying that fermentation has drastically expanded the spectrum of what’s available to the human palate. “Ferments are huge sources of flavor complexity,” Mr. Katz said. “That’s why people find cheese so compelling. That’s why soy sauce has become a universally loved condiment.”

At home, Mr. Katz devotes much of his days to flavor experiments. “This woman in North Carolina taught me that Cherokee people used to take their excess corn and pickle it in a brine, and it’s incredibly delicious like that,” he said. “I’ve been doing a variation on that where I cut kernels off the corn and make like a fermented corn relish. I ferment it just for a few days in a jar and it gets this beautiful, sharp flavor.”

Pungent tastes and aromas don’t dissuade him. A while back he tried his hand at making balao-balao, a Filipino specialty in which rice is fermented with shrimp. “I loved it, and as the days passed and the flavors got stronger, I liked it more and more,” he said. “I brought it to a potluck meal that some friends had organized. And as I reheated it, I noticed that it got really, really smelly. A year later my friends are still telling stories about that crazy smelly fish that I tried to serve them.”

Naturally, a seeker like Sandor Katz couldn’t resist an invitation to visit Momofuku’s laboratory of fermentation, so after lunch he took a short stroll to an unmarked sliver of office space in the East Village, where he met Dan Felder, the 28-year-old head of R&D for Mr. Chang’s network of restaurants.

There, in the Momofuku test kitchen, Mr. Felder gave Mr. Katz a glimpse of a brilliantly demented-fermented future: Erlenmeyer flasks full of new iterations of soy sauce, jars of vinegar conjured up from ingredients like strawberries and cherries, little mounds of paste that represented the next wave in miso. There were vials of explosively flavored tamari, a mere droplet of which might garnish an oyster.

“It’s basically, ‘How do we make umami from scratch?’ ” Mr. Felder explained.

As with molecular gastronomy and the farm-to-table movement in the past, a deep focus on fermentation can help a chef like David Chang (or René Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen) stake out fresh territory for creative expression. Every time the Momofuku crew hatches a new flavor, Mr. Felder said, “the more expansive our repertoire can become.”

To demonstrate this, he reached into a fridge and removed some laces of creamy fatback dusted with salt and a mold-colonized barley used to make products like soy sauce and miso.

“Koji-cured lardo,” Mr. Felder said. “This is a new frontier.”

Mr. Katz reacted to the lardo and everything else like a kid in a kimchi shop, even going into a brief reverie when a jar of Basmati koji was opened and his nasal passages got to bask in the fragrance. “Oh, my God, what a beautiful aroma,” he said. “It’s a gorgeous mold. I am so in love with koji.”

Traditionally, miso has come from fusing that mold with rice or barley, then adding it to a base of soybeans. But Mr. Felder brought out several versions that had been made, instead, with ingredients like pistachios, pine nuts, lentils or mung beans.

“I’m fascinated by this idea of nut-based misos,” Mr. Katz said. “I want to taste them all, really. The pine nut was amazing.”

“That’s Chang’s favorite,” Mr. Felder said. “You get this incredibly creamy mouthful.”

Mr. Katz swooned over the pistachio miso, too (“Oh, my God, this is so delicious”), and as he prepared to leave, his blue eyes were brightly shining.

“It’s really exciting for me to see these crazy new applications,” he said. “I feel like this is going to influence my experimentation.”


For Gastronomists, a Go-To Microbiologist


Published: September 17, 2012

Erik Jacobs for The New York Times

JIM LAHEY, the founder of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York, wanted to find out which organisms inhabited his sourdough and produced its tantalizing sulfuric aroma.

Meanwhile, in the East Village test kitchen of the Momofuku restaurants, David Chang and Dan Felder were fermenting pork tenderloins, pistachio misos and fish sauces, and trying to understand what microbes made the process work. And in San Francisco, Harold McGee, author of the food-science book “On Food and Cooking,” began to wonder what bacterial species made his particularly long-lived yogurt culture so hardy. They all turned to the same expert: Rachel Dutton, an ebullient young Harvard microbiologist who, almost by accident, has become the go-to source for chefs and food artisans seeking to unravel the mysteries of microorganisms.

At a time when cooks are increasingly delving into the science of food, there is no shortage of resources, including a forthcoming sequel to the book “Modernist Cuisine” for home cooks; the Cook’s Illustrated “Science of Good Cooking;” and a continuing lecture series at Harvard and the University of California, Los Angeles.

But some chefs want to dig even deeper. “I would consider myself a cellular gastronomist, not a molecular gastronomist,” Mr. Lahey said. “I’m always thinking in terms of microbes and populations of microbes.”

For those who have made their way to her, Ms. Dutton is an exceptional find: a scientist who can explain arcane concepts in laymen’s terms, who dispenses her expertise pro bono, and who shares their fascination with good food.

“There really is no one else doing what she is doing,” said Mr. McGee, a contributor to The New York Times Dining section. “Academic microbiologists have not taken an interest in small-scale fermentation, focusing on food safety rather than food quality. There is really only one person at the moment.”

Inside Harvard’s gleaming Northwest Science Building here, Ms. Dutton and two postdoctoral researchers, Benjamin Wolfe and Julie Button, have been culturing cheese samples for scientific scrutiny. In a large, open laboratory filled with beakers and centrifuges, the three work on isolating bacteria and fungi from cheese rinds, storing them in petri dishes in a modified refrigerator they call the cave.

Ms. Dutton, 32, started out as neither a cheesemaker nor a turophile (cheese lover). Her first love is science.

After finishing doctoral work on tuberculosis and E. coli, she began searching for a guinea pig to study the microcosmos. She needed a village of microbes that could help scientists understand how more-complex populations communicate and build microscopic societies that we macrobes depend upon. (After all, microbes take up residence in our homes, the soil, oceans and even within our guts, where they outnumber body cells nine to one and often prove essential to health.)

Her model organism had to be complex, but not so complex that it couldn’t be replicated in a lab. That’s when Ms. Dutton came across the cheese section in “On Food and Cooking,” and said to herself, “This is the community I have been looking for.”

In 2010, she began an ambitious five-year project to sequence, analyze and map the DNA of organisms found on 160 different cheese rinds from around the world. Viewed under a scanning electron microscope, these microbial villages can look very simple or highly diverse — as different as the ecology of Lincoln Center’s well-manicured lawn and that of the High Line before its flourishing weeds were tamed.

As word about the lab’s work spread, first among microbiologists, then among cheesemakers, Ms. Dutton’s in-box filled with requests from nonscientists, including chefs, bakers and even a pickle maker in Berkeley, Calif. Packages started showing up at her office, containing food samples for her to analyze.

The activities of these microbial communities lend distinctive flavors and aromas to fermented foods, and appear to vary from region to region.

“You can imagine certain microbes are found in certain places,” Ms. Dutton said. “That’s interesting in terms of cheesemaking, but that’s also interesting in terms of microbiology and in manipulating microbial ecosystems.”

Chefs also suspect that by harnessing the actions of these unseen native inhabitants, they can create an indigenous taste of place: a “microbial terroir.” Mr. Chang said he hoped to find signature flavors unique to the East Village that could give “locally grown” a whole new meaning.

“How can we make New York taste New York?” he said. “What makes terroir is the microbes. It’s literally what’s in the air.”

Yet the same food made in two different parts of the world may end up with a similar village of microbes. That’s what Ms. Dutton found when she sequenced Mr. Lahey’s sourdough, which started with flour, water and a culture he found on a cabbage leaf in Tuscany in 1992. (He said he looked there because he thought the leaves resembled the skins of wine grapes, which he had been picking for weeks.)

As in 90 percent of the world’s sourdough, Ms. Dutton discovered, the culture contained a single species of bacteria: lactobacillus sanfranciscensis. Now, Mr. Lahey said, “I have a name for the community of microbes that make up my starter. It’s a good thing, as Martha Stewart would say.”

He also learned that all sourdough starters have to perform in a similar way, which explains why the ancient recipe for bread has remained so consistent, and replicable. While bakers made sourdoughs successfully for millenniums without any of this technical knowledge, Mr. Lahey said new scientific analysis could soon herald a “golden age of fermentation.”

For now, Ms. Dutton said, her work with chefs can be time consuming, especially as she is overwhelmed with cheese, but the interactions have fueled a newfound curiosity for her, as well as for the chefs. One of her colleagues did a nonscientific side-by-side comparison between his sourdough and Mr. Lahey’s sample. Ms. Dutton has also been able to taste-test Momofuku’s miso at the restaurants’ laboratory. (After all, eating is not permitted at their workbenches in Harvard’s pristine lab.)

“I had no idea how delicious the fresh koji was, when you ferment the rice with Aspergillus,” she said. “It goes from tasting like plain rice to tasting like this incredibly sweet, almost dessertlike food. There’s nowhere you can taste that, unless you make it yourself.”

As for Mr. McGee’s yogurt, the sample revealed a remarkably stable, if not all that surprising, community of Lactobacillus and Streptococcus. Still, the collaboration might make the treat even longer-lived. It has been shared around the lab; as Ms. Dutton said, “We’re all making Harold’s yogurt.”

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