Sandor Katz Interview: The Godfather of the Fermentation Revival on Chinese Pickles, Eating at Noma, and Learning to Love Olives


Does it feel funny to talk about something as elemental as fermentation as a trend?

It’s the awareness of fermentation or interest in fermentation that’s the trend. If you think of coffee, beer, wine, bread, cheese, cured meats, vinegar—have those things just suddenly become of interest? I don’t think so.

There’s a blurb on the new book from Rene Redzepi of Noma, a world-famous chef who’s doing interesting things with fermentation. [“Sandor Katz is the O.G.”] Have you eaten at Noma?

Yeah.

What was that like for you, as someone who knows so much about fermentation?

iIt was really an amazing experience just to be eating this endless parade of very well-thought-through small courses. It’s incredibly labor intensive, and a lot of it was really delicious. And a lot of it was very, kind of—clever, or beautiful.

But for me food like that is like a fantasy—to have a hundred people cooking for me all day just to make this parade of unexpected flavors. Nobody’s going there to get nourishment—people are going there to get entertainment. The experience they’re selling is the creative manipulation of the food. And certainly fermentation is an integral part of the ways in which they are manipulating the food. And I appreciate that: they did all kinds of clever and interesting things, and they’re providing a lot of inspiration for people in terms of what can be done. And I appreciate that they’re sharing so much of what they’re learning.

But I just like to point out that fermentation is not exclusively the domain of the highest echelon of restaurants. It’s exciting that these restaurants are so interested in the kinds of flavors that fermentation can render, but in most places historically fermentation has been a practice of practical necessity—how do we preserve the food resources that we have so that they can feed us through the period of relative scarcity? How can we really get the nutrients out of this food?

Soybeans are really interesting because they’re considered the plant food with the most concentrated protein, but our human digestive systems are not capable of extracting the protein from a soybean. If you ate a big bowl of soybeans that had simply been soaked and cooked, you would have terrible gas and indigestion and you would not get a significant amount of protein out of them. So thousands of years ago, the Asian cultures that pioneered soy agriculture developed ways to make the soybeans more digestible that mostly involved fermentation, where fermentation breaks down the proteins into amino acids. I mean, that’s what we now understand through scientific analysis, but 2000 years ago people just recognized that, oh, well, the soybeans don’t give us indigestion if we do these things to them.

You’ve described fermentation as something that was healing to you at points in your life.

I’ve got into a little bit of trouble having said that because I wrote on the back of Wild Fermentation that fermented foods have been an important part of my healing. I’ve been living with H.I.V. for more than 30 years now. And I have read numerous articles about myself that say that I’m the man who cured AIDS with fermented foods. It’s not like that. I wish that could be my story—that would be an exciting story. But I went through a period after I was interested in fermented foods, after I was eating fermented foods regularly, where I got really sick. I ended up getting on antiretroviral drugs in 1999 and I’ve been on them ever since.



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