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Seek out the good bacteria in your kitchen

India has a long history of fermenting foods and most starter cultures being sold in stores can actually be found in your own kitchen

Kombucha is a fermented tea, made with SCOBY, a bacteria and yeast culture that home cooks often share with one another. (iStockphoto)

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I had been fermenting stuff for years without even thinking about it. Until fermented food being “good for the gut” became a fad, I didn’t think about what bacteria went into my homemade curd or idli and dosa batter. They were just comfort foods eaten in my family for generations and they made me happy.

When people asked if I used an “heirloom starter” to set my curd, I was amused. It could be heirloom, but it certainly was not mine. My starter bacteria had evolved over the years, maybe over generations, with contributions from various friends, relatives and neighbours. My starter of mixed and forgotten origin had even travelled to the US with an aunt who said that yoghurt was no substitute tangy Indian curd. She carried my starter in a tightly sealed bottle hidden deep inside her suitcase to avoid the eagle eye of US customs officials who could toss it out because it contained bacteria.

Also read: How fermented foods saved human diets

Over generations, we traditional home fermenters have found our own solutions to creating the perfect ferment—wrapping batter in a warm shawl overnight during winters or leaving the curd to set in a preheated microwave. We’ve replaced the traditional toddy used for fermenting the Kerala appam with yeast or sugared coconut water. Coaxing the fermentation process along requires creativity and patience, which keeps your mind ticking as a home cook. But all these homegrown fermenting processes are slowly fading into oblivion as busy homemakers switch to easily available packaged commercial batter and flavoured yogurts. Unlike home ferments, these industrially manufactured products are made with very specific bacteria under controlled conditions. They often have added, non-natural preservatives to extend their shelf life. It’s rare to find a commercially made curd or yogurt that can become a starter for your own curd.

Things have changed quite rapidly in our fermenting world in the last couple of years. As people grappled with the pandemic, they began rethinking their ways of eating and switched to home-cooked foods. They were looking for foods without artificial preservatives, and had the time to experiment. Soon, new cooks were exchanging SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), the starter for kombucha, the mildly fermented tea. Sourdough bread is another fermented food that got an extra boost during the lockdowns when bread and even baker’s yeast disappeared from shelves. But making sourdough is not easy—the starter, which replaces the baker’s yeast, needs to be carefully mixed, fed and maintained. Making the perfect sourdough requires patience and practice.

Bengaluru’s darshinis brought fermented South Indian foods like dosa and idli out of home kitchens. Now, the city has cafes and breweries dedicated to fermented foods that blend flavours of east and west.
Bengaluru’s darshinis brought fermented South Indian foods like dosa and idli out of home kitchens. Now, the city has cafes and breweries dedicated to fermented foods that blend flavours of east and west. (iStockPhoto)

All this has been followed by a spike in demand for companies that have been making fermented foods. Bengaluru-based Local Ferment Co, for instance, has positioned itself as a brewery and kitchen that focuses on all things fermented. Founded in 2019 by Akash Devaraju, the company sells kombucha, shrub soda, ginger beer and other drinks that use locally sourced fruits, spices and herbs. They can also be used as mixers in cocktails to replace highly sugared, carbonated and unhealthy drinks that are often full of chemicals and preservatives. The biggest clients for these kinds of products tend to be in the 25 to 50 age group, people who have learnt to appreciate different kinds of foods yet want to eat and live healthy.

Once upon a time, it was Bengaluru’s darshinis that brought South Indian cuisine out of home kitchens and gave a new life to feremented ‘tiffins’ like idli, dosa, curd vada and bakala baath (curd rice). Now, Bengaluru has cafes and breweries dedicated to fermented foods that blend the flavours of east and west to cater to all palates.

So, what happens to home fermenters; will the natural starters used by individuals become a thing of the past? Or like long-forgotten heritage rice and millets, which are now being revived, will they too find their way back as the new generations search for healthier food options? Most of the starters that are being so aggressively branded can actually be found in your own kitchen, or sourced with a little help from family and friends. As for me, I’ll wait for that moment of revival when my starters gain true “heirloom status”.

Gita Aravamudan is a senior independent journalist based in Bengaluru.

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