When we think of sauerkraut, most of us think of Germany. The word itself, which means “sour cabbage” in German, often brings to mind its close companions: beer and Brätwurst. But some would argue that fermented cabbage actually originated in China, long before Germany staked a claim.
Regardless of origin, lactic acid fermentation is one of the most popular methods of food preservation in the world.
Professional Chef Elijah Santoyo, who also serves as Director at The Permaculture Academy in Los Angeles, teaches fermentation classes in the Southern California area. He was trained in Japanese Kaiseki cuisine and as a sake sommelier under Master Toshi Suigara. I recently asked him for some advice as I get started with fermentation, and he’s been gracious enough to share some of his wisdom here.
Q: What is the most difficult aspect of vegetable fermentation?
Elijah: Fermentation is very simple and elegant, the only practical problem sometimes is space. Most of us don’t have root cellars or cave access anymore, so finding space for all your various jars and crocks can be an issue. I used to have a separate refrigerator just for kimchi.
Q: What have you found to be the most effective way to “bruise” vegetables to release their juice in preparation for fermentation? For example, is there a specific tool that is more effective than simply squeezing them in your hands?
Elijah: The salt granules and along with osmosis do plenty, and the more carefully you massage the ingredients the better. Time is really on your side, and is an important ingredient to any pickle recipe. You have to remember that anything you do to the organic matter in the beginning will be magnified twelve-fold by the end. So be gentle and kind. We used to call it “respectful” in the professional kitchen.
Q: Of the many fermentation vessel options to choose from, what are your favorites?
Elijah: I love urns of any type, the breathable clay korean onggi (Amazon Associate Link), in particular. And the japanese cypress tubs. The other great design is a chinese pickle crock (Amazon Associate Link), where a lipped opening filled with a moat of water creates a gas siphon.
Q: What are some common mistakes that beginner fermenters make?
Elijah: Usually the balance of salt and flavourings is the first trip up, a lot of people love to make substitutions and improvise in recipes, but they are chemistry and they should be followed closely. As my sensei used to beat into me, if you don’t know, imitate.
Q: What is the most interesting thing you’ve ever fermented?
Elijah: A type of thai sausage called naem, or sour pork. It’s raw pork mixed with garlic and started with sticky rice (which you’ve chewed and spat out to create a bacterial inoculant using your saliva) and left at room temperature for a week to sour and then is eaten raw with crudites. Aroi mak mak, if you know what I mean.
I’m so glad I asked that last question! I’m astounded by how much there is to learn about this topic, and I’m glad there are folks out there who are willing to share their knowledge. As we become increasingly reliant on large corporate entities for our food supply, we would be wise to maintain at least a basic understanding of food preservation methods. If we don’t, the wisdom may be lost altogether.