THIS IS A PICKLE
WORDS BY ANDREAS CARVER
The other day at work someone asked “what’s kimchi?”
“What is kimchi?!” I thought. “It’s like…. spicy. It’s kind of like a pickle. It’s cabbage? Yeah, yeah, it’s cabbage.” Hesitantly echoed someone at the opposite end of my office. I was taken aback by how nobody could give as a distinct an answer as to what kimchi was! How could they not know? In New York, gentrification has really changed the displays of cold foods on metal shelves and suddenly these fermented foods “are just SO gewd.” Anytime I see these traditional pickled items, beyond kimchi: sauerkraut, dill pickles, fermented ume, and more – I wonder how many of us know the real benefits to such items. And how many of them really cherish the process of making such a beautiful dish.
There are two specific methods to pickling. Vinegar pickling breaks down cucumbers, carrots or any vegetable by immersing them into an acidic solution. The historical method of fermentation begins with the relationship between naturally occurring bacteria and sugars. Also known as quick pickling, it is made up of vinegar, salt, and water. According to Dr. Bruno Xavier, “when living organisms die, they activate several responses in the tissue that trigger the release of enzymes that start to break down the vegetable. The acid from the vinegar, along with naturally forming acids in the food itself, slows down that decaying process.”
In other parts of the world, like Asia, pickling is more of a meditative process, one that relies on patience and science. Unlike quick pickles, traditional pickles rely on salt to help the fermentation. According to Popular Science Magazine, traditional pickles are made by initiating an anaerobic fermentation process. During fermentation the sugars are transformed into lactic acids by Lactobacillus plantarum. The lactic acid gives pickles their characteristic tang, while also creating an inhospitable environment for bad bacteria by eliminating sugars and creating an acidic setting.
“The mass marketing of superfoods ignores such assimilation; capitalizing on the history of a community.”
Essentially pickling is a slow ride to decay, but it’s a good thing! Cultures all over the world have been pickling for centuries: in America, we have dill pickles, in Japan, Kyuri Zuke, L’hamd Markad in Morocco, Pickled Herring in Sweden, and Sauerkraut in Germany. These fermented delights have always been the accent of a cuisine, on top of rice, on a sandwich, or eaten straight from the jar. I’m not sure if the vast varieties are because of how nutritious pickles are or if it is the flavors that flourish during the process, either way, these recipes have scientifically proven benefits for our guts.
As we continue to learn more about our guts, pre and probiotics have become pretty trendy in the health communities. Pickles are a probiotic, they encourage the growth of live microorganisms in our gut, like yeast or bacteria, that can help mental and physical health. (Read our article, The Food Science of Happiness HERE) Naturally fermented foods help strengthen our gut microbiome, which are made up of 100s of trillions of bacteria that live in our digestive tract. By adding these beneficial foods to your diet, you are creating a healthy environment for your intestinal flora. The flora is the soil to your garden. It invites fiber to thrive and our system to digest. Adding more fermented foods to your diet, like pickles, can increase healthy digestion and the absorption of vitamins and minerals. It too supports a hefty gut lining which in turn nourishes a strong immune system. Incorporating probiotics into your diet can elevate your mood and cultivate a happy mental state.
“The lactic acid gives pickles their characteristic tang, while also creating an inhospitable environment for bad bacteria by eliminating sugars and creating an acidic setting.”
The process of a pickle, no matter the origin, requires patience and practice. People may be discouraged by the daunting task of waiting for the satisfaction of biting into a homemade pickle, but trust me, it is well worth it. And if you can’t wait, and do grab that minimally designed jar of Japanese pickles from your local bodega in Brooklyn, make sure you understand the history of the contents of that jar, and what that food means to people outside of our western culture. The mass marketing of superfoods ignores such assimilation; capitalizing on the history of a community. In Jenny Yang’s parody, “Bad Appetite, Koreans Learn to Make Kimchi from Brad,” a Korean mother longs for the taste of home. “That taste, even now,” tears fill her eyes, “ I can’t forget. My hometown. Korea itself. That is what kimchi means to me.” Food is universal. It is personal. It is culture. It is home. Research who you are supporting when you buy such items so you aren’t contributing to the homogenization of a cuisine. As I said, food is universal. But when someone of one culture is cooking another cultures staple, make sure they are giving back to that community.
The next time someone ask, “what is kimchi?” You can break it down for them – no pun intended.