HomeLifestyleFood & RecipesThis chef wants to change your mind about fermented food

This chef wants to change your mind about fermented food

On face value, fermented food doesn’t sound all that appealing – after all, you’re essentially leaving things to “go off” before they’re ready to eat.

While food writer Mark Diacono has now embraced a love of all things fermented, he wasn’t always this way. “Like most sane people, I always had a healthy disregard for anything fermented, and the chances of it possibly making me ill,” he says.

For the uninitiated, fermentation is when beneficial bacteria is encouraged to grow in food or drink – transforming the taste, and traditionally used as a means of preservation.

Diacono first dipped his toes into fermentation when a friend gave him a sourdough starter (what he calls “the safe end of everything”) and soon he was “messing around, making the odd sauerkraut”.

The real lightbulb moment came after Diacono got home after a run. “I loathe running,” he says, “I was dying on the sofa when I got in – the radio was on, and somebody was talking about our microbiome and how they were absolutely convinced in a relatively short time, we would come to see this internal world of microbes as enormous and significant as outer space. This is an invisible world that we couldn’t comprehend, even though it’s right inside us and has so much influence over our physical, mental, every part of our being.”

This struck a chord with Diacono, who felt like up until then he’d imagined his internal workings like “a load of bicycle inner tubes attached with a hot water bottle in the middle”. That’s when he really started looking into fermented food and drink – rich with good bacteria, it is thought to improve your digestion and potentially your overall health, too.

With a bit more research, Diacono found out just how much he’d been missing. Fermented food isn’t a huge part of our diet in the west, but it’s been used in eastern countries for years – think kimchi, miso and natto. There are a few reasons why it’s traditionally been much more popular in eastern countries – it could be because many of these places have hotter climates, so in the days before refrigeration, there was more of a need to preserve food without it spoiling.

“It’s no stretch to say we’ve [the west] been richer than a lot of the other parts of the world, and with that, we get access to sugar and we then get a very sweet tooth,” Diacono muses. “We desire sweet things – and at the expense of sourness and bitterness.” He also suggests richer countries have had the “luxury” to be put off by fermented foods, as people have had the ability to eat things fresh.

And yet there’s absolutely no reason to be grossed out by fermentation. Diacono wants people to realise we actually eat it “all the time, anyway” – listing bread, beer and wine as “ferments that we’re happy with”.

If you’re a newbie to fermentation, Diacono recommends starting with drinks: “There’s no acclimatising to the joys of water kefir or kombucha – it’s just straight lovely stuff, and it immediately has an impact. I was quite stunned. I’m really not one for lining up my crystals and all that business, but I immediately found when I started drinking fermented drinks that weren’t alcoholic, I really felt like there was some uplift in my resting state. I would be quite happy to be disbelieving about it, but I couldn’t deny the fact it was there.”

Diacono says once you’ve “broken the seal” of fermentation, you’ll “find yourself galloping after” more and more recipes – particularly when you discover, like him, the joys of making things yourself.

“That’s a lot of what I love about fermenting things. The more I do from scratch (within the limits of time and everything else) the more I feel like I’m not just giving myself fuel,” he says thoughtfully. “There is a joy to the process, and there’s a pleasure in things like growing your own food and being part of it. We outsource so much in our lives – I’ve got no interest in how a car works, but some of the fundamentals of life – like feeding yourself – I get a lot of pleasure out of.”

And once you’ve mastered drinks, you’ll soon find yourself racing to try the umami fizziness of kimchi, and even some more unusual recipes – such as Diacono’s garam masala cherry tomatoes (“as if they are full of sparkling water and sherbet”, he writes). Just maybe steer clear of fermenting bananas – while Diacono advocates for almost any kind of fermentation, he says with a laugh: “Definitely don’t put banana anywhere near a fruit kimchi, because it’s just the worst.”

‘Ferment’ by Mark Diacono (published by Quadrille, £12.99; photography by Mark Diacono), available 3 March.

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