Fermentation has always been at the heart and soul of cuisine no matter the time, no matter the place. Imagine a table topped with the absolute best of French, Italian, and Spanish cuisine, then take away the wine and any dish with cheese. Try again with Japanese food only this time take away any soy sauce, miso, and pickles. Try Indian food without the yogurt and raita, German food without the sauerkraut, Korean food without the kimchi, and the United States without beer. That we depend on fermentation to define our individual cuisines is clear, but why?
In the Beginning…
Today we hear about fermentation mostly from health nuts who get overly excited by yogurt cultures. But a long time ago our hunting and gathering ancestor’s discovery of an oxidized fruit resting in the shade of a tree meant quite a lot more. The unnamed Prometheus who gave us the ability to ferment, thus preserve, gave us the gift of stasis, and with that stasis, time. Because food could be harvested, preserved, and saved, roaming was no longer necessary for survival. With the time spared came contemplation and expression, exploration and creation. With other likeminded, opposable thumbed compatriots we formed communities, tradition, culture, and art–all those things that inspire us to transform food into cuisine.
Rousing the Chi
Ask a pathologist about fermentation and he’ll tell you about the billions of microorganisms that coat the insides and outsides of our bodies. United to protect, to nurture, and to empower the human being, they thrive on the lactic bacteria introduced to our bodies in infancy through milk. Turns out lactic bacteria protects more than our kimchi—it protects us. It renders a lot of poisonous antibodies harmless, it produces vitamins and minerals that we cannot survive without; it contains an extraordinary amount of energy (as it’s alive) that is easily digested, isn’t fattening, and helps us to digest the foods in our diets that are fattening. In developing countries, nutrient-packed fermented foods that can be preserved and stored without electricity are literally life-savers.
But is there Umami?
Ask a chef about fermentation and the answer will be a lot sexier. Nature seduces us; she makes fermented foods, necessary to life, very easy to swallow. The nutritional cocktail the pathologist adores manifests itself as an array of tart, richly complex flavors in foods that are aromatic as hell. Ask a sommelier how to balance those elements of taste, texture, and aroma and the answer will most likely be to devote your life to it. Because like most natural phenomena, harnessing the power of fermentation and completely controlling its culinary characteristics, takes an affinity for precision and focus only found in the few.
Enter Chef Sanghoon Degeimbre
The young Korean chef of L’Air du Temps in Belgium discovered his interest in fermentation the same way most of his countrymen did, through kimchi. Since his culinary philosophy is all about using culinary technology and local ingredients to create healthful and elegant cuisine, kimchi appealed to him for all the right reasons. He’s eager to introduce Korean food to the world, he strives to serve local food year round in spite of Belgium’s cold climate, and he enjoys a challenge. At international culinary events like The Flemish Primitives and Seoul Gourmet Chef Degeimbre proselytizes on the powers of fermentation and showcases the progress he’s making on perfecting the great ferment.
But spreading the word isn't all that Chef Degeimbre's been up to. In his recipe, Nature: Daïkon, Acidulated Carrots, Olive Soil, Flowers and Herbs, Chef Degeimbre deconstructs kimchi to the basic elements and reforms a masterful entrée. It’s a far cry from the first found sticky, stinky, fermented fruit our stooping ancestors marveled over. And it's definitely a telling marker of how our standards of haute cuisine can change. You certainly can’t blame our ancestors for delighting in funky fruit after a lifetime of gnawing on raw woolly mammoth bones, but thank god we’ve worked up something better.