Our kingdom of human kind is founded on unseen universes. Past the blanket of clouds, the mighty cosmos was once believed to be populated by supernatural beings that’s justice and jealousy spurred the movements of everything here on earth. In the past century, humankind has dedicated millions of dollars in resources to create telescopes capable of scouring the far-reaches of the universe, detecting light, heat, and other forms of radiation: not even a single space-dog has been found.
Microscopes, on the other hand, have revealed to us trillions of times the amount of biological life than that which can be seen with the naked eye. On and within a human being alone the microbiota, living non-human organisms, there are an estimated three times the number of microorganism cells as there are human tissue cells. Every surface, outside and in, is covered with billions of tiny bacteria, eating, colonizing, and changing their local environment with communication chemicals and respiratory biproducts. Every human being, animal, and insect is comprised of many communities of helpful organisms that help accomplish complicated tasks like digestion, and producing protective acids. Whatever is big enough to see is the just the tip of the iceberg, and the world underneath is millions of times richer in activity.
Fermentation, in a food sense, refers to harnessing useful bacteria and yeasts (which are fungi) to modify and transform food items. Much of the food and drink we love comes from the processes of fermentation: alcohol, vinegar, soy sauce, fish sauce, bread, pickles, salami, yogourt, and cheese are some examples of fermented products. A diverse array of yeasts and bacteria are used accomplish tasks like turning sugars into alcohol, turning alcohol into vinegar, raising a loaf of bread, or acidifying a pickles.
It works because these organisms need to eat. Mostly, they are naturally occurring, living on the peel of a vegetable, or even in the air, waiting for the opportunity of gorge themselves on a tasty meal. It’s also bacteria and yeasts that are responsible for food spoilage and rot. Why, then, does a cucumber from one batch turn into a gross, soft, mess and another a crunchy, tangy pickle? Because over time humans have learned the conditions that certain helpful bacteria require to thrive, so we create those conditions and reap the rewards.
There are a few kinds of helpful fermentation that we use to make various foods. The most important non-alcohol form of fermentation uses a group called lactic acid bacteria. These bacteria consume sugars and produce lactic acid, which can be detected as the tangy sourness in natural pickles. In order to harness the power of lactic acid bacteria (or LABs) all you need is a vessel, some vegetables, and salt. Salt is absolutely necessary, as it inhibits the growth of other not-so-helpful and possibly-harmful bacteria from growing, allowing the LABS to gain an advantage and colonize the vegetables. After a couple of days and up to several months, the LABS will produce natural acids, preserving the vegetables, making them safe for future consumption.
Lactic acid fermentation is an ancient practice that humans have employed as a life saving food preservation technology. Refrigeration is a very recent technology that until very recent, and still in much of the world, was too expensive to be accessible to common people. Moderate climate North Americans are spoiled with their space-ship sized fridges with many shelves and compartments. Mostly, world over, people have small fridges, or no fridges, and have to practice various forms of food preservation that don’t rely on keeping things cold. In North America fermented foods are still consumed but largely because the flavor is loved: people love the tang of a kosher dill pickle or of a Louisiana hot sauce.
People are turning back to do-it-yourself fermentation technologies, interested in pursuing their own local flavors, or concerned about the economic, ecological, and social impacts of energy consumption and mass food production. Part of this project is to make people feel comfortable with attempting to do these traditional food projects themselves. Even professional cooks are hesitant to start experimenting with fermentation, not being aware themselves that fermentation is fairly easy, and actually very safe. Compared to water bath canning, which relies on sealing off air from the food to prevent spoilage, fermentation is quite a lot safer, and less expensive to get into.
One goal of this project is to have people making their own padaek, their own hot sauce, and pickles, the traditional ways and feeling confident in their abilities to do so and in the safety of the product they’ve made.