How Fermented Foods can Support a Healthy Digestion
Like me, some of you may have experienced the discomfort of a sluggish digestion, feeling a bloating sensation throughout the stomach and lower bowels. Others of you may be plagued with sporadic to frequent heartburn. In the past, I tried eating a more green and raw diet, and although I had more energy and clarity of mind, my digestive system continued to feel like it was falling behind the rest of my bodily health progress.
What I found out was that while raw nuts and veggies are better for the body nutritionally, they are more difficult for the stomach to break down and process, making your digestion work even harder. I started looking up things that I could to improve my digestion. I sipped on ginger and/or peppermint tea for temporary relief—check. I increased my daily water intake—check. But I was still experiencing symptoms.
A friend suggested that I look in fermented foods. I knew that fermented foods considered healthy but I really never considered why. I’ve always enjoyed sauerkraut and eating the pickle that comes with meals in a restaurant. And whenever my mother-in-law beaks out her famous bread-and-butter pickles, I’m in heaven. In retrospect, it seems so obvious, but I didn’t consider fermented foods as a way to help my digestive issues.
Sandor Ellix Katz writes in his book, Wild Fermentation, that eating fermented foods is “an incredibly healthy practice, directly supplying your digestive tract with living cultures essential to breaking down food and assimilating nutrients.” These living cultures are a kind of good bacteria (the same that causes milk to good sour) that “breaks down [nutrients] into more easily digestible forms” (Katz), such as turning sugar into lactic acid.
After I started incorporating fermented foods into my diet, I noticed that I didn’t feel as bloated. I became more regular and noticed an increase in energy. And it felt more permanent than temporary. Unlike ginger tea, which provided temporary relief, eating fermented foods was treating the cause of my ailment rather than just the symptoms. It restored my digestion to a state of balance that I never had before. It’s like what I was eating was giving my digestion a kick-start. I started buying a plethora of pickled carrots, pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi.
After a time, I started noticing that certain fermented foods I was buying in the store contained far too much sodium. Of course prompted by Katz book, I looked into fermenting my own foods at home. I ended up purchasing a jar-top fermenter which fits on any wide-mouthed mason jar. After successfully making my own sauerkraut from red cabbage, I purchased two more jar-top fermenter kits and started pickling onions and radishes, as well as attempting my mother-in-law’s famous bread and butter pickle recipe! Not only have I improved my personal health but I’ve acquired a new hobby.
Next I’m looking to start this Kimchi recipe:
Makes 1 quart
1 medium head (2 pounds) napa cabbage
1/4 cup sea salt or kosher salt (see Recipe Notes)
Water (see Recipe Notes)
1 tablespoon grated garlic (5 to 6 cloves)
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon sugar
2 to 3 tablespoons of kelp powder
1 to 5 tablespoons Korean red pepper flakes (gochugaru)
8 ounces Korean radish or daikon, peeled and cut into matchsticks
4 scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1.Slice the cabbage: Cut the cabbage lengthwise into quarters and remove the cores. Cut each quarter crosswise into 2-inch-wide strips.
2.Salt the cabbage: Place the cabbage and salt in a large bowl. Using your hands (gloves optional), massage the salt into the cabbage until it starts to soften a bit, then add water to cover the cabbage. Put a plate on top and weigh it down with something heavy, like a jar or can of beans. Let stand for 1 to 2 hours.
3.Rinse and drain the cabbage: Rinse the cabbage under cold water 3 times and drain in a colander for 15 to 20 minutes. Rinse and dry the bowl you used for salting, and set it aside to use in step 5.
4.Make the paste: Meanwhile, combine the garlic, ginger, sugar, and kelp powder (mixed with 3 tablespoons water) in a small bowl and mix to form a smooth paste. Mix in the gochugaru, using 1 tablespoon for mild and up to 5 tablespoons for spicy (I like about 3 1/2 tablespoons).
5.Combine the vegetables and paste: Gently squeeze any remaining water from the cabbage and return it to the bowl along with the radish, scallions, and seasoning paste.
6.Mix thoroughly: Using your hands, gently work the paste into the vegetables until they are thoroughly coated. The gloves are optional here but highly recommended to protect your hands from stings, stains, and smells!
7.Pack the kimchi into the jar: Pack the kimchi into the jar, pressing down on it until the brine rises to cover the vegetables. Leave at least 1 inch of headspace. Seal the jar with the lid.
8.Let it ferment: Let the jar stand at room temperature for 1 to 5 days. You may see bubbles inside the jar and brine may seep out of the lid; place a bowl or plate under the jar to help catch any overflow.
9.Check it daily and refrigerate when ready: Check the kimchi once a day, pressing down on the vegetables with a clean finger or spoon to keep them submerged under the brine. (This also releases gases produced during fermentation.) Taste a little at this point, too! When the kimchi tastes ripe enough for your liking, transfer the jar to the refrigerator. You may eat it right away, but it's best after another week or two.
- Jordan Freytag