The expert breaks down the myths and sets the record straight on fermenting foods the right way

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Sandor Katz during a class in 2014

When I meet Sandor Katz on a cool winter morning, he’s at Cafe Causette, signing copies of his published work, ‘Wild Fermentation’. Katz was brought in as a consultant for the kitchen team at the Mandarin Oriental, and among his tasks was kickstarting a budding fermentation project at the Mandarin Grill and training chefs at the hotel. They’ve chosen their man well: since 1993, the food activist and fermentation expert has shared his passion for food preservation on his website and in his published works.

For 23 years, Katz has held countless workshops sharing his unique interest in food fermentation, from healthy beverages such as kefirs and kombucha (fermented tea) to fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and kimchi. While home fermentation may not be as popular in Hong Kong as it is in other parts of the world, we were delighted to meet with the expert as he demystified fermentation in layman terms. 

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Sauerkraut, cucumnber pickles and yoghurt. Photo courtesy of Thinkstock / marekuliasz

Fermentation is broadly transformative actions of microorganisms, those that are living everywhere in our surroundings. We cannot live without them. 

Controlling environmental condition is the most important thing we should know about fermentation. By controlling the environment to facilitate growth of these microorganisms, we can ferment vegetables, tea, or even meats, in an optimal environment, yielding desirable results.

Bacteria can be good too, contrary to scientific beliefs we were taught when we were little. They are the building blocks of all life, and they can be beneficial to our health. 

Fermentation takes a dominant role in our food history and heritage. Coffee, breads, charcuterie, cheeses, soy sauce, miso, vinegar, beers, and wines are all some of the fermented products that make up a large part of our diet. 


Japanese radish pickles. Photo courtesy of Thinkstock / gontabunta

We should not treat fermentation as a fad. The heightened attention to it is rooted from heightened curiosity and concern over food production, where our food comes from and how it is produced. We are getting attuned with the food we consume, and this is essentially a great step to raise awareness.

Creative individuals can enjoy the fun of mixing and matching seasonings and ingredients for a do-it-yourselfer. Some likes to stay classic and simple, some enjoys being mavericks of flavours and textures, as long as you work within the perimeters of cleanliness and fitting environmental conditions, fermenting at home is limitless. 

Many flavours are fruits of fermentation, as they intensify and evolve through fermenting. The same goes for wines maturing.

Personal taste is what it takes to tell when your ferment is ready to use. Some enjoy it more tart and acidic, some enjoy it lighter. As long as you can tell your ferment has not molded, or developed an undesirable outlook, from a musky smell to molding exteriors, judging with your senses is the best way to cultivating your ferment the ways you enjoy the most.


Kombucha. Photo courtesy of Thinkstock / bhofack2

It is important to know your ferment before you make them. To successfully make sauerkraut you need to have all the vegetables submerged. For kombucha you need to cover it loosely as the bacteria, also known as SCOBY, needs oxygen to breathe to carry out fermentation successfully.

Sourdough bread has been around longer than conventional bread making. It has better flavour and texture, often richer nutrient profile and diminished gluten content thanks to prolonged exposure to yeast. The only drawback is that it takes longer time to make and more nuanced techniques to produce them. 

There are no set rules in fermentation, except cleanliness, which helps with environmental conditions being well-controlled. There is no need to sterilize with chemicals, but always wash your hands before handling ferment, and same with the utensils. 

Sandor Katz is returning in January 2017 to Mandarin Oriental to hold a public forum on the art of fermentation, covering diverse subjects on the process from how-tos to concepts and health benefits. Find out more here, and stay tuned as we share with you the latest updates.

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