Fermentation is central to Japanese cuisine 0

One of the first things you’ll notice about Japanese cuisine is that most meals conclude with a small portion of rice and fermented vegetables, or tsukemono, as they’re called in Japan. In fact, last night, we met up with one of my husband’s former Japanese colleagues for dinner in Tokyo, and as the meal was ending, he insisted that we finish the meal with at least a small portion of rice and fermented vegetables. The meal just wouldn’t be complete otherwise, he explained.

Tsukemono encompasses a wide variety of fermented foods, but it typically refers to fermented vegetables. When exploring any grocery store in Japan, you’ll find an extensive and colorful selection of fermented vegetables, some packaged and some out in the open actively fermenting. Also, most food markets will usually have at least a few vendors whose specialty is fermentation. These vendors often have an assortment of fermented items for customers to sample prior to making a purchase.

The Nishiki market in Kyoto (below) has a wide variety of vegetables that are in the midst of the fermentation process in open-air barrels. The light brown, gritty-looking ingredient covering the vegetables is brown rice bran, which happens to be the bran that is left behind when white rice is polished.

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Here is another vendor’s fermented vegetable offerings at the Nishiki market.

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This particular vendor, also at the Nishiki market, had a welcoming tray of fermented vegetables for customers to sample.

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Chemically speaking, what exactly happens when a food is fermented?  

Let’s start with a simple example. If we were to ferment daikon, we’re taking naturally occurring starches, sugars and carbs in that daikon, and we’re converting them into lactic acid, using three things: a starter, time and a lack of oxygen, or anaerobic conditions. In the case of daikon, the “starter” happens to be bacteria that is naturally occurring in the vegetable. In some cases, a starter in the form of a controlled yeast or bacteria is introduced to kickstart the fermentation process.

The fermented soy bean is fundamental to Japanese cuisine and manifests itself in an array of food products.

Fermented vegetables and beans have been a part of Japanese cuisine for centuries. In fact, common ingredients, such as soy sauce and miso are fermented versions of soy beans. Natto, a distinctly Japanese fermented food, is just another version of the fermented soy bean. The difference is that natto is fermented using the starter culture, Bacillus subtilis whereas miso, soy sauce, sake, shochu, vinegar and mirin are fermented using the fungus, Aspergillus oryzae, or kojias it is called in Japan. 

Fermentation has a little something to do with that fifth flavor called umami.

When koji is used as the starter, proteins are broken down to produce amino acids, including glutamate. It is through glutamate receptors that we are able to taste “umami,” one of the five tastes. Unlike our taste receptors for sweet, sour, salty and bitter foods, foods with umami have a savory taste. However, it’s important to note that when translated directly from kanji characters, “umami” means “delicious taste.”

Beyond the typical soy bean-based fermented Japanese products mentioned above, you’ll find an array of vegetable-based fermented foods readily accessible throughout Japan and incorporated into breakfast, lunch and dinner. Other vegetables that are commonly fermented in Japan include carrots, different varieties of cabbage, beets, bamboo, radish, ume (Japanese plum), burdock root, lotus root and eggplant.

Today for lunch, my cold soba was served with a small dish of fermented red cabbage, hakusai (Napa cabbage) and cucumber (below).

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The fermented daikon and ume onigiri below (triangular shaped rice filled with ume and wrapped with seaweed) were served alongside an udon lunch set.

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Many locals will tell you that they start their day with a breakfast of rice and fermented vegetables, such as the breakfast pictured below. Natto tends to be a popular fermented breakfast item.

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So why should I consider adding fermented foods to my diet?  

In summary, while fermented foods are by no means a cure-all, here are three key health benefits that you can enjoy when incorporating small amounts of fermented foods into a nutrient-rich, plant-based diet:

  • Support the immune and lymphatic systems through the production of amino acids, probiotics, isoflavones and essential enzymes
  • Help to breakdown the fermented food before it enters our digestive system, thus aiding the digestive process and maximizing nutrient absorption
  • Promote increased regularity by helping the gut to get rid of waste.  A culinary instructor at the Natural Gourmet Institute in NYC put it rather simply, “the goal here is to strengthen the food entry and exit process.”

Interested in fermenting your own vegetables at home?

Even though the selection of prepared plant-based fermented products might be limited to pickles, sauerkraut and kombucha in the U.S. and Europe, the great thing is that you can easily ferment your own vegetables at home. Check out The Art of Fermentation for in-depth reading on the topic. If you’re looking for some easy-to-follow recipes, Wild Fermentation is a great place to start.