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Kimchi, kombucha & belacan: How to ferment food at home

Kimchi, kombucha & belacan: How to ferment food at home

Connie Chew’s tiny little kitchen is a veritable Aladdin’s cave of fermented food. From her refrigerator, she unpacks fermented tamarind, mushrooms, fish guts, salt, tempeh and natto.

“Here, try some,” she says ladling some fermented mushrooms onto a spoon (the stuff is delicious, in case you’re wondering). A visit to the equally tiny storage area behind her kitchen reveals shelves lined with more fermented food.

Chew is a former image consultant who is also a passionate foodie. She has participated in numerous television shows including the Asian Food Channel’s Foodie Face-off 2013 in KL, where she emerged the winner.

Over the past few years, her interest in fermentation has burgeoned, and as a result, she has emerged as something of a local font of knowledge on the subject.

Chew’s love for fermented food began when she was a child, as her dad loved eating local fermented food like belacan (shrimp paste).

“I didn’t understand what it was at that time. I only knew that something so simple was so delicious. My father used to say that the smellier it is, the better it is,” she says, laughing.

Connie Chew, Crazy Asian Ferments

Chew is passionate about fermentation and has learnt from experts all over the world. She even has a Facebook page on the subject called Crazy Asian Ferments.

A few years ago, Chew started making her own fermented food after taking a trip to Thailand and learning the basics of fermentation from Canadian fermentation guru Lance Hancherow who taught her how to make fermented beverages like Kombucha (a fermented black tea) and sauerkraut (fermented cabbage). She supplemented this knowledge with a trip to Japan where she learnt even more from Japanese fermentation experts like Kureha Shokudo.

“I realised that the fermented food in Japan is very delicious and it’s quick. You do not have to keep it for too long, so that’s when I got hooked on making a lot of Japanese fermented food and also Korean fermented food,” she says.

Since then, Chew has gone on to give classes on fermentation in Kuala Lumpur for those interested in fermenting at home (she doesn’t do classes at the moment as she doesn’t have the time). She also has a Facebook page on the subject called Crazy Asian Ferments.

Chew is not alone in her interest in home fermentation. Fermented food has become one of 2018’s biggest food trends, with some even calling it a superfood. So what is fermentation exactly?

Historically, fermentation was used as a technique to preserve the shelf life of food before the advent of refrigerators. In countries like Korea, vegetables were fermented in autumn to ensure people could get access to vegetables during the harsh winter months. Many people in Korea even have dedicated kimchi refrigerators.

Connie Chew

Chew’s home is filled with all sorts of fermented food and she is constantly making more.

According to nutritionist Jo Lewin in an article on BBC Good Food, fermentation happens when “microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast or fungi convert organic compounds – such as sugars and starch – into alcohol or acids.” This is done in anaerobic conditions, which essentially means the absence of oxygen in the environment.

In vegetables and fruits, this conversion produces lactic acid which enhances the natural beneficial bacteria in food, known as probiotics. It is this probiotic element which has been credited with improving gut health.

In his book, The Clever Guts Diet, Dr Michael Mosley writes “One of the reasons why fermented foods are so good for the gut is that, gramme for gramme, they contain a huge number of different microbes. The microbes in fermented foods are also far more likely than most other bacteria to make it safely down into your colon because they are extremely resistant to acid, having been reared in an acidic environment.”

The book echoes the findings of a 2006 article in the Journal of Applied Microbiology, which reports that consuming probiotics can improve intestinal tract health and enhance the immune system.

Examples of fermented food are aplenty, and range from yoghurt and sauerkraut to miso, kimchi, belacan, fish sauce and drinks like kefir (a priobiotic cultured drink) and Kombucha.

Connie Chew

Chew says ingredients should be massaged together with clean hands, as opposed to using gloves.

But according to Chew, there is a world of difference between the Western notion of fermentation and the Eastern one.

“From what I’ve observed, the Western world is very focused on probiotics, whereas over here it’d be what makes our food delicious in South-East Asia.

“Our fermented food stuff will be like belacan, cincalok, fermented squid, tempoyak. All these stuff are very smelly. With Thai food, almost every dish has got fish sauce or fish broth, which will put you off when you smell it, but when you put it into the food, it makes it taste delicious.

“For me now, I like to do more Asian fermented food because there is a priobiotic element to it and also the umami taste,” she says.

Connie Chew, fermentation

Chew often uses vegetable cores to weigh down her ferments, as the fermented vegetables and fruits must be submerged in water to create anaerobic conditions.

If you’re planning to ferment food at home, Chew says hygiene and sanitation are paramount. She washes all her utensils and ingredients in pH2.5 sodium hypochlorous acidic water before using them and washes her hands with the same water before handling the food. For people who do not have access to this water, Chew advocates washing hands in natural vinegar and sterilising all utensils in boiling water before using. She also says when massaging the ingredients with salt, it is generally best to use clean hands.

“Some people use gloves – especially when making spicy dishes like kimchi, but when you use gloves, you’re actually disconnecting from the microbes. There’s actually bacteria in the hands, which is encouraged, so try not to wear gloves when you’re making fermented food,” she says.

Other useful tips for making fermented food include using very fresh fruits and vegetables, avoiding iodised salt or table salt in favour of sea salt and using purified water to ferment.

Chew says there is also a difference between the way food ferments locally as opposed to Western countries.

“The Western world is different because it takes a longer time for their food to turn sour. For us, if you’re not careful, once it’s left to ferment for more than one day, it starts to become sour. And if you continue to leave it outside, it will turn very sour and won’t be edible,” she says.

For people who are concerned about the high amounts of salt required to brine vegetables for the fermentation process, Chew encourages eating fermented food in moderation. “I think unfortunately there are some people who treat it as medicine. For me, I wouldn’t treat it like a religion, like you have to eat it every day,” she says.

Incidentally, salt is necessary in fermenting vegetables as there is an elevated risk of harmful bacteria like botulism proliferating without the aid of salt.

Ultimately, Chew says making fermented food at home requires patience and a passion for making it in the first place.

“There is no shortcut, you have to be very patient, it’s almost like you’re engaging with the mould, yeast, microbes and having a connection with them,” she says.

fermented green papaya Thai-style somtam


Serves 5 to 6

Tools required
1 litre Mason jar sterilised with either hot water, alcohol, natural vinegar or pH2.5 water

For shredding
1 young papaya (about 600g), shredded and massaged with Shiokoji or sea salt (1.5% salt ratio to shredded papaya)
1 carrot (about 100g), shredded

For pounding together lightly
3 garlic cloves
5 small dried chilies
30g dried shrimp
5 to 6 long beans, cut into 2cm length
1 medium size tomato or 8 cherry tomatoes

For seasoning
2 tbsp good quality fish sauce (Nam Pla)
1 tbsp Thai fermented fish broth (Pla Ra) (optional)
2 tbsp grated Thai palm sugar
1 tbsp Thai lime juice
1 tbsp tamarind juice

To make

Massage salt into clean papaya and leave aside for 1 to 2 hours. Liquid will soon seep out of the vegetable. Squeeze out the water until the papaya is totally dry.

In a large clean bowl, mix papaya, carrot, pounded ingredients and seasoning together with clean hands. Stuff and compact the mixture in jar. Make sure to leave a gap between the topmost point of the vegetable and the bottle cap.

An anaerobic environment is absolutely essential in fermentation. The green papaya must be completely submerged underneath the liquid (which the vegetable will release when it ferments) in order for the lactic acid bacteria to proliferate. This is also important for protecting your ferment from unwanted bacteria (or mould). Fermentation weights (a chunk of green papaya or a piece of ginger) wedged on top of the mixture can help keep your ferment submerged. Seal the jar loosely with its lid.

Leave to ferment for 24 hours before moving to the refrigerator. If you prefer your vegetables more sour, leave to ferment at room temperature for 2 days before transferring to the refrigerator.

sambal belacan kimchi


Serves 5 to 6

Tools required
1 litre Mason jar sterilised with either hot water, alcohol, natural vinegar or pH2.5 water

For mixing together
Napa cabbage (about 1 to 1.2 kg)
1/4 cup sea salt

For blending together
6 red chillies, deseeded
30g belachan, toasted
30g galangal
80g tomatoes
50g cooked rice
1 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp çincalok
4 garlic cloves
1 tsp white sugar

For adding to the kimchi
1 carrot (about 100g) shredded
1/2 white radish (about 200g), shredded
1 stalk spring onion, chopped
1 stalk lemongrass, cut finely (take only the bottom 3 to 4 inches of the stalk)
5 pieces kaffir leaves, shredded very thinly
few pieces laksa leaves, shredded very thinly
1/4 stalk torch ginger flower, thinly cut

To make

Rinse and prep cabbage. Cut cabbage into bite-size pieces and place in mixing bowl. Add salt and gently massage salt into leaves. Cover with cling film and set aside for at least 3 hours or overnight, folding once or twice. At this point, water will be released from the vegetable.

Rinse the cabbage at least 3 times then squeeze out excess water and put in a dry mixing bowl. Add the blended ingredients and the rest of the ingredients and fold until the cabbage is evenly coated with paste.

Pack kimchi down tight into Mason jar, leave a gap between the kimchi and the bottle cap. Place a weight (core of Napa Cabbage or a piece of ginger) on top of the kimchi to keep it submerged in the liquid (liquid released from the vegetables). An anaerobic environment is absolutely essential in fermentation. The liquid protects the vegetables from the aerobic organisms that grow on the exposed surfaces. Seal the jar loosely with its lid.

Place the jar on counter top in normal room temperature (tropical climate) for 24 hours. After 24 hours, open jar to release gasses, it should be stinky. Then reseal and store kimchi in fridge.

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