Fermented foods are among the most common foods you’ll find around the world. Every culture has some tradition of fermenting foods, so it's no surprise to find that this “culture” has deep roots in Japan.
What are fermented foods?
Fermented foods, those wonderful, sumptuous, and at times, stinky foods are not only delicious, but are also extremely healthy. Simply put, fermented foods are foods which have been prepared and stored with some kind of microorganism such as yeast, bacteria, or a mold. This preparation process helps convert the original food into a different kind of food, and helps to impart it with a deeper flavor and increased health benefits.
Fermented foods using yeasts are some of the most familiar worldwide. Yeast breaks down the sugars present in food and helps in adding flavor to such things as bread as well as helping it to rise. It is also this process with yeast that creates alcoholic beverages like beer. Bacteria, in particular lactic acid bacteria, are used for fermenting products like yogurt, kimchi, or natto. Finally, perhaps one of the most important for Japan’s food culture, is fermentation through mold. Mold is famous for helping to make cheese, but in Japan, koji mold is used to help make staples like soy sauce, miso and sake.
On top of being delicious, fermented foods have all sorts of positive health benefits. While there is some debate about the exact benefits of a diet rich in fermented foods, there are some good points of consensus. First, fermented foods tend to be easier to digest, as the process of fermentation already starts to break down things like starches, lactose, and complex carbohydrates. Next, it also helps to create a healthy biome in your digestive tract. People consume all kinds of bacteria on a daily basis, and while most it isn’t harmful, some can be. A diet rich in fermented foods can help to maintain a healthy digestive biome and stop harmful bacteria before it can take hold in your system. Finally, while not entirely confirmed, there is anecdotal evidence that certain fermented foods can help with seasonal allergies, as well as have an effect on lowering unhealthy cholesterol when eaten as a part of a healthy diet.
Japanese fermented foods
Many Japanese staple foods are fermented foods. Common examples include miso (learn more about the different types and which to use), soy sauce and sake which are all fermented using koji, a kind of healthy mold also known as Aspergillus oryzae.
You can also find more unique products such as our goishicha (a rare type of fermented tea), hishio moromi (a regional, semi-solid fermented paste that is the unrefined predecessor of such things as miso and soy sauce) or natto koji paste (an artisanal paste made from fermented soybeans).
About the author:
Michael is originally from Chicago, IL in the United States, but has lived in Japan for seven years in Niigata and Hokkaido. He is an avid home chef, baker, and coffee enthusiast, but his one true love is ramen. Ever in pursuit of the perfect bowl of noodles, you can always find him by listening for the tell-tale slurp of ramen being enjoyed!