A Guide to the World of Fermented Foods (and How to Enjoy Them at Home)

In an age when hand sanitiser and face masks are the accessories of choice, it may seem odd to encourage the cultivation of bacteria - but hear us out. Fermentation can be a sustainable and accessible way to preserve fresh produce while connecting you to far-flung cultures. Take a look at our favourite fare before trying for yourself.

You only need to have an iota of interest in food or wellness to be acquainted with fermentation, and you've likely digested (in a literary or gastronomic manner) its many benefits long before clapping your eyes on this. You'll probably be acquainted with its ability to boost healthy bacteria and digestibility, as well as the many flavourful compounds unlocked by this rather miraculous process. Ever thrown a little chutney on top of some dahl? That's what we mean.

Yet as with many health crazes - turmeric, meditation, CBD, perineum sunning - the history of fermented foods stretches back thousands of years, with practices and recipes (whether harnessing wild bacteria or adding a starter culture) being passed down generations. There's evidence that a fermented concoction of fruit, honey and rice was made in Neolithic China around 7000 BCE. Today, kombucha and kimchi steal the limelight on the cultured-food stage, but you'll find fermentation in many other forms too, including kiviak, an Inuit food made by fermenting small birds in the hollowed-out body of a dead seal, and that pint you're looking forward to when lockdown finally lifts.

Between snaking queues into the supermarket and calls to stay at home, fermentation can be an entertaining, sustainable and accessible way to eke out the shelf life of fresh produce, while connecting you to the far-flung (and close-to-home) cultures in which such foodstuffs form the cornerstone of culinary life. These are some of our favourites, and a few ways you can enjoy them at home.

Try these 20 famous fermented dishes (and the ones you've never heard of)



Tangy with a salty hit, Turkey's national drink is often enjoyed as an accompaniment to meat. It's found across central Asia in various forms too, from Iran (where it's known as doogh) to Afghanistan, Armenia (called t'an), Kyrgyzstan and Syria. Blitz natural yoghurt with ice-cold water and salt (to taste) in a blender until foam forms on top. Delightfully refreshing.



Fishy condiments have been prepared since the pre-Roman period - unsurprising given that they require just fish, salt and time, and give any dish an umami kick. Recipes are regional, with the fish used varying from anchovies (bagoong monamon) to shrimp (bagoong ginisang). Use it as a marinade for steak or to jazz up fried rice.



Sugars (usually from malted barley) are converted by yeast into alcohol and carbon dioxide to give us beer - a process used since 8000 BCE. A Mesopotamian tablet depicts people drinking the nectar through straws from a communal bowl, much like our plans to celebrate lockdown lifting. With a bit of kit, you can brew your own at home in two to three weeks.



Thought fermented foods were just for hipsters and "wellness warriors"? Think again. It's estimated that the world knocks back around 1.4 billion cups of coffee daily - each of which starts life with a ferment-and-wash method that helps to clean the coffee cherries and give our cup o' Joe a deep, complex flavour.



It's a no-brainer that most meat left at room temperature will spoil. Yet thanks to the introduction of good bacteria, cured sausages such as salami, saucisson, pepperoni and chorizo need neither to be stored in the fridge or cooked before eating. Need a lockdown project? You can get your hands on starter cultures online.



Ever ordered mapo tofu or beef in black bean sauce? Then you've probably tasted douchi, black soybeans that have been salted and left to ferment. Look in an Asian supermarket (or online) for beans that are dried and whole; they'll keep in your cupboard for ages. For best results when cooking, let them rehydrate in rice vinegar or soy sauce before use.


West Africa

Especially popular in Nigeria, garri is made from cassava root that has been crushed to a pulp then dried and fermented. The flakes are then consumed as part of a cold drink, in a porridge with milk, sugar and groundnuts or made into a dough called eba.



Chef Anthony Bourdain once described hákarl as "the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing" he had ever eaten. It's made by burying the meat of basking shark for 12 weeks before it is then cut and dried for a further five months. Brave enough to try? This pungent, ammonia-rich snack is typically eaten during Þorrablót, Iceland's midwinter festival.


India and Sri Lanka

Across the world, there are many variations of grains and legumes being ground and fermented and then either steamed in a cake or fried into a pancake. Idli (a steamed cake made from rice and lentils) are a staple breakfast in southern India. Dosa follows a similar preparation but is cooked like a crêpe, while appam (also known as hoppers) adds coconut milk into the mix. Like this? Try injera, a sour teff-based flatbread from Ethiopia.



It was in the Song dynasty (somewhere between 960 and 1279 BCE) that descriptions of vegetable fermentation first appeared. Today, kimchi recipes range from the traditional to the more accessible (and, in this case, vegan). When ready to eat, try using it to spice up veggie fritters or dollop atop homemade bibimbap and spirit yourself to Seoul.


Russia and China

You'd be forgiven for thinking this voguish tipple was the creation of Brooklynites, Portlanders or East Londoners. Yet way before it was commercialised, people in Eastern Europe and China were using SCOBYs (a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast; it looks a bit like an alien) to convert sweetened tea into this naturally fizzy 'booch. Beg, borrow or buy a SCOBY and use that extra lockdown time to brew your own.



Dahi, a yoghurt-esque fermented milk product was mentioned around 5000 BCE in the Rig Veda, the oldest sacred Hindu book. Still going strong today, India's love for fermented dairy manifests in lassi, which you can recreate by blending yoghurt with water, spices and fruit - we love ours with mango, cardamom and a flourish of lime juice.



This probiotic powerhouse is ubiquitous, being served everywhere from Pret to Noma. Basic ingredients include soybeans, a grain (often rice or barley), salt and koji (a type of fungus). Stir it a little in warm water for a nourishing drink, amp up stews and marinades with a spoonful or use the sweet shiro miso to give fudgy brownies a little something-something.

Nem Chua


Vietnam's answer to charcuterie, nem chua is eaten as a snack with raw garlic. It's made with raw pork (typically thigh) that has been ground, mixed with powdered rice, salt, herbs and spices then tightly wrapped in banana leaves and left to ferment for three to five days. Regional variations use guava or fig leaves, and throw chilli and lemon into the equation.



Among the world's most commonly consumed fermented vegetable, olives have been being preserved since ancient Rome. Not only do they treat us to a good dose of healthy fats, but also some gut-loving bacteria too. Win, win.



While sauerkraut reigns supreme on the Russian dining table, cabbage is far from the only vegetable in the country's long tradition of pickling produce to last through harsh winters. The process of lacto-fermentation involves submerging veg in a brine for a few days (or weeks or months) - typically using 1-3 tablespoons of salt for every litre of water. Try it with cucumbers, carrots or cauliflower, and experiment with adding spices.



Our avo-topped sourdough addiction may be the reason we can't afford to buy a house, but at least it's got some health benefits and tastes great. Priorities. Bread leavened with baker's yeast has only been around for the last 150 years, so many traditional loaves use wild fermentation, including Danish rugbrød, Mexican birote, Amish friendship bread, Ethiopian injera and a San Fran-style boule. Go with the grain of many stuck-at-home millennials and nurture your own starter.



You've probably got a bottle this kicking about at the back of a kitchen cupboard. The flavour of the hot sauce is developed through lacto-fermentation, in which tabasco peppers, vinegar and salt are aged in barrels for months - and sometimes up to three years.



A lovechild of soybeans and fungus (rhizopus oligosporus, to be exact) which have been left to get cosy for a few days, tempeh originated in Java in the 1600s and has since worked its way onto our supermarket shelves. Like this? Try natto, a sticky fermented soybean popular in the Kantō, Tōhoku, and Hokkaido regions of Japan (and available in most Asian grocery stores). Warning: it's an acquired taste, best masked with mustard.

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