An ancient culinary skill is finding new favour with some of modern gastronomy’s best—we explore the how and why of fermentation
The ancient art of fermentation finds new favour with some of modern gastronomy’s best—and the results are breathtaking
The idea of fermentation is as ancient as Neolithic beer and as prevalent today as kimchi, cheese, sourdough and probiotic dairy drinks. But the recent spotlight on fermentation in modern gastronomy has had the food world excited about the possibilities it brings to the table, from interesting new pairings to the growing prominence of acidic flavours.
“Fermentation is a great technique,” says chef Ryan Clift of Tippling Club. “It’s nothing trendy, nothing new—it has been around for centuries, since the dawn of Christ. However, a lot more chefs are using it in their food now, as it brings out different textures and flavours of an ingredient that cooking methods can’t achieve.”
Of course, there are chefs such as Pollen’s Steve Allen, who are adequately fascinated with fermentation’s practical advantages. While undoubtedly inspired to experiment with different techniques and ingredients, Allen mainly sees fermentation as a way of preserving produce, as well as reducing waste and cost. But like any good chef will tell you, it is, he affirms, ultimately about flavour.
Making a dish look pretty is important, adds Daniele Sperindio, the head chef at Atlas, but he expounds that the point of experimenting with fermentation is leveraging the complexity of the flavours it affords. That’s far from easy—one of the hardest things about it is achieving a dependable product, which can be done by figuring out the perfect environment to ferment in a consistent way. Sperindio has even started making his own soya sauce, which will take about a year to complete.
He feels it’s worth the effort, though. A new dish on his menu, for instance, boasts this unique symphony of zesty sensibilities—from the yeasty sweetness of fermented red rice to the complex allure of beetroot pickled in raspberry vinegar.
There’s lactic fermentation, too, with the addition of house-made ricotta. And if you’ve had some the barley mixed with cabbage that has been fermented in milk, you might agree that it tastes a little like potato leek soup— another intriguing aspect of fermentation.
There’s a lot to digest. But the idea of fermentation finding renewed interest with today’s top chefs is a good thing. It’s not a revolution per se, but it’s triggering consumers’ memories in new ways, forcing them to think about their food a bit more— and about the flavours and aromatics they might have previously taken for granted.
THE RESTAURANT: RESTAURANT ANDRÉ
THE CHEF: ANDRÉ CHIANG
THE DISH: 17 LEGUMES DU MOMENT
WITH CHARRED TORO VINAIGRETTE
AND FERMENTED BROTH
Part of a passion project of chef André, this vegetable dish spotlights seasonal legumes sourced from his farm in Tainan, as well as from other artisanal producers. These include leeks, purple cauliflower, sorrel, daikon, green daikon, baby and black radish, red endive, rainbow carrot, fennel, red seaweed, kale sprout and pickled butternut, among others. The vegetable trimmings are placed in a bag and left to steam and ferment at 50 degrees Celsius for 48 hours. Here, the dish is showcased alongside the restaurant’s signature “fermented jus” No. 8, which features chrysanthemum, wild honey and fleur de sel. While it’s a three-day process to infuse the flavours into the kombucha (fermented tea), the fermented jus takes two to three months to complete, depending on how the fermentation process goes.
THE RESTAURANT: TIPPLING CLUB
THE CHEF: RYAN CLIFT
THE DISH: SALSIFY TAGLIATELLE
As salsify is a delicately flavoured vegetable, fermenting accentuates its natural flavours, which can be lost if it were boiled. It’s first peeled and added to lightly salted water, then covered with a cloth so that it can breathe and allowed to sit like this in a pan for about a week and a half, depending on the size of the salsify and the temperature of the restaurant. This produces a pliable texture and, when sliced thin, it almost resembles a crunchy, al dente tagliatelle. This is served with a hen’s egg yolk cooked at 63 degrees Celsius, jamón de bellota, sourdough crumbs and a garnish of wild herbs.
THE RESTAURANT: FIREBAKE
THE CHEF: KONSTANTINO BLOKBERGEN
THE DISH: KUGELHOPF WITH FERMENTED MILK ICE CREAM
White liquid sourdough starter is used to make this rich baked cake, which also uses organic white flour, unsalted butter, fresh milk and organic sultanas. To finish, the kugelhopf is dipped in clarified butter and orange blossom water before sugar syrup is drizzled on top. Ground almonds and almond flakes are added before it’s dusted with icing sugar, caster sugar and sea salt.
For the ice cream the restaurant pairs it with, kombucha scoby is added to fresh cream that’s left to ferment at room temperature for three days in a glass jar covered with a cheesecloth. This is used as the base for the ice cream. Japanese strawberries in sugar syrup, which are fermented in the chiller in a covered container for at least two days, are served on the side.
THE RESTAURANT: ATLAS
THE CHEF: DANIELE SPERINDIO
THE DISH: RICOTTA AND RED RICE
This complex starter is a medley of artfully fermented foods, with fermented red rice as the star. This is done by using yeast, which processes the rice’s natural sugars to create a mildly sweet, slightly alcoholic flavour. It’s topped with lacticfermented ricotta and served alongside paper pillows, beetroot pickled in raspberry vinegar, fresh coriander, and a barley and cabbage mix— the latter is first fermented in milk.
THE RESTAURANT: NOURI
THE CHEF: IVAN BREHM
THE DISH: TOMATO AND OAT
This warm dish consists of tomatillos, cape gooseberries and cherry tomatoes from Cameron highlands—served both fresh and lacticcultured. The fermented berries and tomatoes are submerged in a salt brine and left to ferment for two to three weeks. They’re paired with burrata from Puglia, an oat broth (a blend of rolled oats in a water infusion that’s left overnight and strained), oat flakes and basil oil. It’s garnished with petai leaf for a natural garlicky flavour profile. The brining liquid that fermented the tomatillos—which has a particular floral flavour note—is used to dress the dish.