Food as medicine tastes even better!

A guide to cultured, fermented food

The most common fermented foods are right under your nose!Traditional food in Central AsiaWorcestershire sauce was two years in the making

We add flavour to our meals with pickles and sauces without realising that they too, are classified as fermented foods. Probiotics are present in all foods that contain yeast, and bacteria and we are all familiar with strains such as lactobacillus - either from real fresh yoghurt or from taking a time-released capsule as a supplement. Yoghurt is simply fermented milk.  Worcestershire sauce, for instance, begins as a seething mass of rotten goo. The first brew was abandoned by Lee and Perrins, the two pharmacists who were striving to make a universal condiment. A few years later, their sealed barrel of reject sauce was discovered in a store-room. Inside was a black, delicious fluid – exceptional, well fermented. We now know it as Worcester sauce!  Although the recipe remains a secret, the basic ingredients included: vinegar, molasses, sugar, salt, anchovies, tamarind extract, onions, garlic, spices, soy sauce, lemons, pickles and peppers. The key to the success of this iconic brew was in fact time and oxygen starvation – fermentation.

Food ready to useCredit: Sue Visser

Kimchi is a hot spicy pickle that is so easy to make!

Kimchi is a fiery, spicy rot pot of shredded vegetables combined with salted fish (vegans can use miso). It is very easy to make and surprisingly moreish, especially on a slice of toast. We can skip the fish and add a dash of soy sauce, miso or tamari to produce a similar flavour and it improves the fermentation process by adding even more bacteria. Kimchi contains Lactobacillus Kimchi and lactic acid based bacteria like sauerkraut. A typical mixture would include shredded Chinese cabbage (or plain old cabbage) as the main ingredient with sliced up, carrot, garlic, ginger, onion and for the brave, chilli peppers!

hydrogen sulphide from garlic

Garlic can be excluded as the kimchi can become overpowering, due to the effect of hydrogen sulphide. (See this link to learn more about fermented garlic.)

You can also include sliced yellow, red and green peppers or leeks. Experiment with other slivers of vegetables to perfect your own version of Kimchi. Add soy sauce, miso or anchovies and leave your combo to ferment for between a few days to a couple of weeks in a well-sealed jar. After 7 days it will go fffff-whoosh when you open it. Kimchi tastes sour (duento the lactic acid fermentation) yet pungent and the vegetables will become soft and juicy. It is very popular in Asian countries and Central Asia where it is made in huge vats and sold at food markets.

Kimchi and Pickles Central AsiaCredit: Sue Visser

Sauerkraut - surprisingly nutritious and simple to make

Kimchi and sauerkraut feature cabbage that when fermented anaerobically (without air) will produce lactic acid and hence Lactobacillus Plantarum and Pediococcus that are vegan friendly. Sauerkraut is very rich in vitamin C and is good for acid reflux, indigestion and heartburn.  It is so cheap and easy to make. Just shred up half a cabbage and place it in a bowl with a large pinch of salt. Leave it in the sun to wilt down to half the volume and then whack it into a screw top jar, filled and pressed down to exclude as much air as possible. Close it up tightly and wait for 2 – 3 weeks. Then open it - whoosh! It tastes sour, tangy like lemon juice or vinegar. Keep your sauerkraut in the fridge and enjoy it with mashed potatoes or other vegetables. Mix it with yoghurt as a sauce or have it on the side with a sausage. Add a scoop of sauerkraut and yoghurt or amasi to cold summer soups you make in the blender for a tangy treat.

Some like it hot and ferment their own chilli sauces – so can you

Tabasco sauce and other fiery condiments that originated in Louisiana during the 19th century are based on chillies that are mashed and fermented in brine. The process can be as complicated and pedantic as the recipes you find on the internet. Anaerobic fermentation, the production of lactic acid means that oxygen must be shut out. Special fermentation jars with air locks that enable carbon dioxide to escape take the process to completion, ensuring the exclusion of oxygen. If oxygen is present, your pickle will go mouldy – covered in black fur! Adding vinegar to a jar of slightly fermented chillies will stop that from happening. We can go ahead and make some pickle straight away by chopping up a pile of chillies and mixing them with salt. Place them in a glass jar, screw on the lid and leave it out in the sun or in a warm place for a few days until they soften – but don’t go mouldy. Now add a little vinegar and olive oil to taste and process them into a paste with a stick blender – I do this inside the jar. For more fermentation, you can add leftover juice from your kimchi or sauerkraut instead of vinegar. Experimentation is the key and even kimchi can be liquified into a very tasty sauce. Keep your fiery treasures in the refrigerator to prevent contamination.  

Fermented Soy Products: Soy sauce, Miso, Tamari sauce, Tempe and Nattō

Fermented soy products are rich in probiotics, amino acids and enzymes. Chinese soy sauce is made from fermented soy beans and usually contains wheat. These products have umami (the savoury taste) due to the presence of natural MSG (a salt of the amino acid glutamine) that is released during the fermentation process. This natural flavouring compensates for a salt craving and helps to reduce our sodium intake. In Japan, a fermented soy sauce called tamari is a by-product of miso. Miso is a cooked up mash of fermented soy beans, combined with a mould called koji (Aspergillus Oryzae) and salt. During the fermentation process, the black tamari sauce oozes out of it. Rhizopus Oligosporus is a fungus that is added to cooked soybeans and other legumes to produce Tempe. This fungus is an antibiotic in its own right and even kills pathogenic bacteria like the dreaded staphylococcus aureus. It is heat-resistant and can withstand cooking plus a wide range of pH levels. These tasty medicinal bean patties are also a rich source of protein and along with the antibiotic are a host of probiotics!

the raw materialsCredit: Sue Visser

Nattō was traditionally made by placing cooked soybeans in rice straw, which naturally contains Bacillus Subtilis, (a microbial activating agent) and leaving them to ferment. The bacteria give the beans a stringy, slimy texture, a pungent odour and a unique, acquired flavour. They support a thriving colony of healthy gut flora and provide vitamin K2 that prevents hardened arteries and weakening bones (osteoporosis). It contains nattokinase, a heart-friendly enzyme that breaks down fibrin and prevents blood clots. So for thine heart’s sake, scoff down those slimy stinky beans or just take some Nattō capsules!

Raw salted lemon pickle has a unique flavour and is good for the liver

Traditional recipes pickle a whole lemon and it takes months before they are soft enough to eat. It is quicker to slice up a few lemons into thin slivers, sprinkle them with salt and allow the mixture to sweat in the sun for a day or two in a covered glass dish. Then pack it into a jar, keeping it closed for a few days until the white parts become saturated and clear. It can now be eaten but keep it in the refrigerator. Enjoy the lemon pickle with just about any meal. It goes well with spinach, dhal, fish, curries and cheese. It is great in a sandwich and with snacks. Lemon skin is very good for bile stimulation and will thus help with the alkalinity of the small intestine. It is good with greasy food and it sweeps the palate. According to some naturopaths, a tablespoon of lemon pickle a day helps with liver problems, arthritis and skin disorders.

Olives are also fermented foods, pickled in brine or mashed into a paste

Often overlooked in our stampede for lactobacillus and probiotic supplements that contain them are olives. A jar of tasty olives is an abundant source of Lactobacillus plantarum and Lactobacillus pentosus. Green olives are the unripe version of all species of olives and they need to be processed in an alkaline medium before entering the brine tank that releases the beneficial bacteria. The ripe black olives have a less aggressive taste and are easier to soften and ferment. Some olives are salted and left to dry (and ferment naturally) in the sun. The soft black flesh can be mashed up and allowed to ferment a bit more to enhance the flavour and it will become sour after a few days if left in an airtight container in the sun. Olives are not inclined to mouldiness due to the Phenolic and oleosidic compounds and other antimicrobial components they contain. This also makes them difficult to ferment because they can also destroy the lactobacillus strains. Olive leaves especially, will halt fermentation and need to be removed from the brine tanks. (Olive leaves contain a host of anti-microbial compounds, as we know and have been used to fight off flu as well as malaria.) The saltiness, temperature and pH are tricky factors, making olive processing difficult for the average DIY enthusiast.

How to Enjoy Fermented Milk Products like yoghurt, amasi, ricotta and cheese

We can add probiotic supplements to yoghurt. Mix in the contents of a few of your capsules or crush up some tablets. Set them free! Although there is no lactose (milk sugar) present, some people still need to be wary of fermented dairy products because of the casein content. To make your own cottage cheese, mix one or two cups of amasi (fermented, clotted milk) with half a teaspoon of natural salt. Pour this into a sieve that has been lined with a finely woven cloth. Allow the water to drip out for a few hours until the desired consistency and transfer it to a closable container. You can flavour this cottage cheese with caraway seeds if you like. Use the brine to add to stews, soups and curries or use it for baking. Here is my guide to getting the most out of amasi, our locally fermented milk. 


A mixture of cottage cheese and ground-up flax seeds can be used as a spread. The Budwig diet for treating cancer makes use of this combination. You can add Marmite as well for even more benefit and it tastes great. For a harder cheese: Fold over the sides of the cloth. Wrap it up in paper towel and then a dish towel. Keep a heavy weight, like a brick on top of it to for a few hours. This produces a smaller lump of solid, creamy white cheese, similar to the Indian pannier or Middle Eastern Labneh It is great with cooked spinach or curries. Keep the chunks of cheese in the discarded brine. (The same idea as Feta.)

Kurt balls dried cheeseCredit: Sue Visser

Parmesan cheese is exclusively made from raw milk – because there are more microbial strains available to use as starter cultures. Amasi, kefir and yoghurt are best made from raw milk – but here it is illegal to sell unpasteurised milk. In Central Asia the raw farm milk is used to make hard, sun dried balls of fermented cheese called “kurt”. Sold as a traditional snack.


Kelp and other seaweeds pack their punch and can also be fermented

150 micrograms (mcg) of iodine daily is usually recommended as enough. A tablespoon of kelp provides five times more iodine. Consuming too much iodine could lead to either hypo or hyperthyroidism, but most of us are critically iodine deficient, according to Dr Brownstein, the iodine expert and that is why ladies are so prone to breast cancer and thyroid issues. If you live at the coast or are able to buy dried kelp, you can have access to unlimited iodine plus a wealth of magnesium, calcium and iron, as well as vitamins, antioxidants, phytonutrients, amino acids, omega-3 fats and fibre.

Kelp pickleCredit: Sue Visser

Chinese and Japanese folk ferment shredded kelp and eat it with other pickled vegetables every day. No wonder they don’t need so many supplements! I made this kelp pickle after visiting Central Asia and was missing it. I soaked some fresh, clean kelp leaves in water and then shredded them into strips. I boiled it to remove any pathogenic bacteria (living in Cape Town we don’t take chances) and rinsed it. After storing it in a jar of brine for a week, I added some chopped onion and a hint of chilli. It can be served with tamari sauce, rice vinegar and a splash of sesame oil. Try it if you are feeling adventurous. Otherwise enjoy nibbling nori sheets, freely available from the Chinese market. They can be roasted in the oven to make crunchy seaweed crisps. But fermentation is going to deliver a lot more of the latent magic that lurks within these marine vegetables.

Make alcohol-free Kombucha or fruit, yeast and grain fermented beverages

A popular trend with foodies is to make their own brews - artisanal beer and Kombucha especially. Beer is a traditionally fermented beverage as we know. But for a less yeasty crispy, tangy taste minus the alcohol, we can make our own Kombucha. It is also a pleasant sugar-reduced alternative to fizzy colas and canned sugary drinks, laden with calories. Rather get hooked on Kombucha. You will need a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). It is a big spongy disk of slime that converts a few litres of cooled and sweetened tea into a delicious tasting fruity drink.

The person who provides you with your new pet SCOBY will provide plenty of advice about how to do a second fermentation to add the fizz, the pop and the fruit. For our family, the five litres we make every week is truly a supernatural event that takes place right in the kitchen! There are many recipes on the internet. Here is a link to more detailed advice because you will need it to perfect Kombucha to your personal taste.

Everybody knows that ginger beer is made with ginger, yeast and sugar. It is simple enough to mix together and allow liquid to stand in a container with a loose-fitting lid for a day or two. If you tighten it, the carbon dioxide cannot escape and a plastic bottle will bloat up and explode into a fizzy torrent when you open it. Fun!

KombuchaCredit: Sue visserAdding strips of pineapple skin or raisins to the brew will add more flavour and increase levels of yeast and bacteria, creating a superior result. As with Kombucha, one can transfer the first brew from the bucket into an airtight soda pop bottle. But keep it in the fridge because it will get really fizzy. Yeast brews are very rich in B vitamins, but especially the anti-oxidant mineral selenium.

Mageu is a traditional South African sour tasting beverage made from mealie (maize or corn) meal porridge. A thin mixture is made and wheat flour is added to inoculate the mixture with lactate-producing bacteria. It is left to ferment in a bucket loosely covered, in a warm area. Today mageu is sold commercially and is pasteurized to extend its shelf-life. It has a sour taste. Mageu and other grain-fermented brews like sorghum beer are considered to be free of alcohol during the early stage or may contain less than 1% ethanol. However, further fermentation can be promoted to increase the alcohol content. In South America the corn beer we tasted was potent! Grain beers are very rich in nutrients - B-group vitamins including thiamine, folic acid, riboflavin and nicotinic acid, and essential amino acids such as lysine. Ingredients such as malt and wheat produce beer that contains gluten, so watch out for them if you suffer from a gluten sensitivity.

Fermented potato - a new take on taties

Fermenting potatoes in brine before they are cooked is nothing new. According to kitchen science, health promoting lactic acid bacteria break down the superficial starches and sugars and consume them. This decreases acrylamides by 84%, meaning that these obnoxious carbohydrates won’t ruin your rosti, French fries or roasted potato wedges. Your newly unleashed powerful probiotics help to neutralize anti-nutrients, including pesticides and make the nutrients (vitamins and minerals) more bioavailable. Fermented potatoes have a delicate tangy taste. Irresistible!

Slices of red or white sweet potato

More starch can be released by grating or cutting the potato into fine strips. Red potatoes, yams and orange or red skinned sweet potatoes are all suitable. This gives one more time in the kitchen when making quick potato dishes – that won’t burn so easily! You can process them in bulk, once a week. Peel them, slice, dice, shred or cut the taties into wedges and soak them in boiling hot water with a good pinch of salt. The next day, give them a rinse and add more boiling water and salt. When cool, close up the containers and keep them in the fridge.

Chinese fermented potato stripsCredit: Sue Visser


A favourite Chinese breakfast dish is made out of fermented potato slivers that are treated in a similar way. They are served with fermented kelp, other pickles, a sourdough bun and a hard-boiled egg.   




Sourdough is made with yeast that comes out of the air

As we know, bread is made out of yeast and the dough rises when the yeast ferments and releases carbon dioxide. The traditional sourdough culture is derived from airborne yeast spores, patiently collected in flour and water mixture that is then stored and used as the starter culture. Sourdough contains more varieties of yeast and gives bread and other products like Ethiopian injera a “wilder” flavour and aroma. The fermentation of the yeast makes starch more digestible and helps to release many of the b-vitamins and amino acids like tyrosine that we take for granted. 

Ethiopian injera and local beer for lunch with our guide’s family

Here is a typical “fully fermented” meal we enjoyed in rural Ethiopia. Injera is a pancake made from teff flour that has openly fermented in water for about five days to build up a suitable level of airborne yeast and other probiotic bacteria. Teff is a member of the grass family and the seeds are tiny. The ground-up gluten free sourdough mixture resembles a bubbly, greyish pancake batter. It is poured onto a hot flat griddle to cook. Everybody tears off a portion of it and dips it into the red paste called Berber that is spread onto the centre. It is made from ground up paprika, oil and aromatic spices and left to ferment naturally - because in a little grass hut there is no refrigerator. The “beer” was a muddy looking sour brew made from malt, hops and honey. Although minimalistic, the fare was good and hearty. Everything had come from the land and was lovingly made as it had been for thousands of years. No wonder they are so healthy and produce some of the world’s top runners! In Addis Ababa we sampled kudzu, a cheesy white paste made by fermenting the trunk of a strelitzia called the false banana tree. It is buried underground for six weeks - totally prepared by soil microbes. Their coffee is legendary and like all coffee, involves a fermentation process. We can learn from these people of the land!

Lunch with Ethiopian country folkCredit: Sue Visser

For more information on what perbiotics, probiotics and postbiotics are, you can read the article I wrote :