Fermented foods are pretty healthy (preserved and raw), and something inexpensive and simple that is worth preparing at home and incorporating into your regular diet. There is no conclusive scientific evidence to prove that fermented foods (like certain yoghurts and pickled vegetables) have positive results in improving gut health in everyone more than taking a good quality probiotic (in tablet form). Studies conducted to date have shown that it really seems to depend on everyone’s individual biochemistry. To be honest, that is true for all nutritional advice, which is why I try to simply provide inspiration and support, rather than concrete and ‘factual’ information here.
Nonetheless, fermented foods are natural probiotics, and if you’ve been prescribed antibiotics for an ailment (I was in my early 20s for skin breakouts and it seriously affected my gut health for many years), then you will definitely benefit from taking a probiotic, and you might also benefit (and enjoy) eating probiotic foods. Not only because of their potential nutritional benefits, but because they are simply delicious. In addition to that, their strong flavour means that they are satiating and thus good for those trying to restrict food portions for weight loss purposes.
First of all, I must recommend two fabulous chefs both based in London, if you are planning to delve deeper into pickled and fermented foods.
The first is Russell James, aka ‘The Raw Chef’, and actually, this sauerkraut recipe here is loosely based on one of his. His very inexpensive online course in preparing fermented foods is well worth buying, as he explains how to prevent mishaps (that is, your vegetables turning mouldy rather than pickled) and he’s got a wealth of knowledge and some wonderful creative recipes, all raw and fermented.
The second is actually my best friend since our university days, Olia Hercules, her pickled recipes are excellent, and the second recipe is loosely based on one of hers. She is a food stylist and writer, and recently published her first cookbook ‘Mamushka’, a homage to her native cuisine, of Ukraine (and beyond). Eastern European cuisine holds fermented foods in high regard, for their nutritional value (on gut health) and also, because of the traditions in preparing nutritionally-charged foods in time for the winter season. Her book is one of a kind and littered with traditional pickled food recipes, please take a look.
It’s a little complicated to ferment foods properly, so I’ve added two simplified recipes here.
In TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) as well as Ayurveda, fermentation also seem to feature as medicinal for restoring digestive balance and function. Typically, in Ayurveda, lemons and limes are pickled, and in TCM, pretty much anything and everything depending on the colourful vast region of China from which it originates. I am currently living in China, and while I think the pickles, often serves on top of rice or soup dishes) are delicious, I am hesitant to buy them in the supermarkets because I know they might be full of artificial colour, preservatives and flavours (my literacy of Chinese characters is only developed when it comes to reading food labels). Some of my favourite pickles here have to be cucumber, aubergine and bamboo, but the list of what you can ferment is pretty much endless.
Try these two of my favourite recipes and adapt them according to your tastes and the local produce available to you. The wonderful thing about fermented foods is their long life, once prepared you can enjoy them for months to come on pretty much anything.
Recipe 1: Red Sauerkraut
Red cabbage, 1 large head
Mineral water, 1 litre
Ground cumin, ½ tbsp
Ground fennel, ½ tbsp
Ground allspice, ½ tbsp
Raw local honey, 1 tsp
Celery salt, 1 tbsp
Sea salt, 20g
1. Remove the large outer leaves as well as the core of the cabbage and set aside.
2. Dice the rest of the cabbage.
3. In a large mixing bowl, add the salts and spices, mix well and then massage the cabbage for around 5-10 minutes (this will soften the leaves and squeeze the juices out). You can stop massaging once you see the juices from the cabbage in the bowl.
4. In a 1 litre sterile jar, tightly pack your massaged cabbage, when you see the juices rising at the sides of the jar, leave a 2 inch gap at the top (to allow the juices to rise later).
5. Place one or two of the outer leaves on top, followed by the core of the cabbage. When you clamp down the jar, the juices should rise up above the cabbage.
6. Place the jar in a cool (not cold) place with a cloth placed neatly underneath for possible leakage.
Day 4 & Beyond
1. The taste should be mildly tangy after 4 days. If it is, you can start eating it, or you can continue to ferment it for a week or two longer, depending on your tastes (the longer you ferment, the stronger your taste).
2. Once you are happy with it, you can transfer it to the refrigerator and begin to enjoy it on just about anything for many months to come.
Substitute the spices for those of your choice. Substitute the red cabbage for Chinese cabbage or napa cabbage if you wish. Toss in a piece of star anise or two if you wish. Also, throw in a finely chopped fresh red chilli if you prefer your sauerkraut to have a bit of a kick.
Recipe 2: Pickled Gherkins
Small fresh cucumbers, 7-9
Mineral water, 1 litre
Fresh red chillies (bruised with the side of a knife), 1-2
Raw local honey, 1 tsp
Peppercorns, white, black or pink, 1 tbsp
Coriander seeds, 1 tbsp
Garlic cloves, peeled, 8-10
Leafy celery stalks, about 2
Dill stalks, 2-3
Sea salt, 20g
1. Very gently move the stalks from the cucumbers without slicing off the tops of the cucumbers.
2. In a large mixing bowl, add the salt, spices, honey, celery, garlic, red chillies and dill and pour over warm water. Set aside to cool.
3. In a 1 litre sterile jar, tightly pack your cucumbers, celery, dill and garlic cloves, packing as tightly as possible by shuffling them around accordingly.
4. Pour the seasoned water over the ingredients in the jar the maximum it can go.
5. Place the jar in a cool (not cold) place with a cloth placed neatly underneath for possible leakage.
Day 1 & 2 (maximum 3)
1. The taste should be mildly tangy after just one day with this recipe. Check the gherkins after one day, if they fizz and take as you would like them to taste, you can transfer them to the refrigerator and begin to enjoy them.
2. If not, leave them out for 1 more day and check again. When you are happy with the taste, you can transfer it to the refrigerator and begin to enjoy them. Leave for a maximum of 3 days if you prefer a stronger flavour (or if it’s cold out).
Substitute the spices for those of your choice.
It is always best to sterilise your jars with boiling water before you begin to reduce the chances of infections and blue fuzzy mould.