Why will you be visiting the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong? “They’re interested in all aspects of fermentation – kombucha, vinegars, miso, vegetables, everything. Fermentation creates most of the extraordinary flavours that we know of, and is part of every table, from soy sauce to fish sauce to the basket of bread, and chocolate and cheeses.”
Do you have to be scientific to understand the bacterial process of fermentation? “It’s a mix of art and science. It’s important to remember science has only understood what fermentation is for about 150 years but people have been doing it for 10,000 years. You just have to understand the environment you’re creating in. You’re encouraging the growth of certain organisms and discouraging other organisms.
I am fascinated by the microbiology. I have a microscope in my kitchen. Some people get scared when you talk about bacteria culture growth and organisms in food. People do project their fears and anxieties of bacteria on fermentation. The ironic thing is it has always been a strategy for food safety – there is no history of sickness in eating fermented food.
When people are worried, I tell them that if their sauerkraut makes them sick it will be an unprecedented historical event – after thousands of years of krauts, your jar is the one with dangerous bacteria. None of the bad organisms you worry about can survive in lactic acid.”
Has being HIV positive changed your perspective on health, food and holistic healing? “In 1991, I tested positive for HIV. I do take medicines. I don’t want to mislead people into thinking that I’m cured from eating fermented foods.
My interest came from growing up and eating pickles and yogurt. I grew up in New York city. My folks are immigrants from Eastern Europe. As a kid, I loved kosher pickles and was drawn to those flavours. Then in my mid-20s, before testing positive, I got interested in nutrition and macrobiotic diets. I thought it was a very health-supportive practice.
When I moved to Tennessee and got into gardening, that’s when I really got into fermentation. We had all these beds of cabbages and radishes ready at the same time and I didn’t know what to do with them. I decided I had better learn how to make sauerkraut, and discovered how easy it was.”
You’ll be doing a public fermentation workshop while you’re in Hong Kong. what draws people to your workshops? “There’s a range of motivations for people getting interested. For some, it’s all about flavour. Others come for the nutritional aspect, of natural macrobiotics, of how fermented dairy transforms the lactose for those who are intolerant, or how bacterial fermentation diminishes gluten. I also get farmers who want to preserve their perishables or make value-added products. If you turn grapes into wine, you add value.
In the US, I also get a lot of people from immigrant families who want to reconnect to their traditions and culture. They say, ‘I wish I’d paid more attention when my grandmother made this stuff.’”
You’re also travelling around China. What fermented foods are you most interested in learning about? “I am curious about every aspect of fermentation in China. I’m going to Chengdu and will spend two weeks travelling in southwestern China. I’m excited about visiting people who are making rice alcohols and will learn about sausage-making techniques and preserving meat through fermentation. There’s a lot of mythography and history of sauerkraut in China as the nomadic people of central Asia fermented vegetables and spread them westward.
I’m also interested in fermented black beans – I love to cook with them – and the different styles of tofu. I just feel China has the most elaborate tradition of fermentation anywhere on Earth but there’s very little info on this in English.
Sandor Katz will give a public seminar for home fermenters on January 13, from 2.30pm to 5.30pm at the Mandarin Oriental, 5 Connaught Road, Central. Tickets cost HK$2,000 plus 10 per cent, and you can sign up at lantaumama.com.