Whether it’s sauerkraut from Eastern Europe, miso from Japan, or yogurt from Bulgaria, cultures worldwide have appreciated the unique benefits of fermented foods for thousands of years. Traditionally, people have used fermentation to preserve foods or to make them more digestible; in the process, they found that these foods also kept them healthy.
Naturally fermented, unpasteurized foods are rich in a variety of helpful bacteria called probiotics, and research shows that these beneficial microbes provide essential support for gastrointestinal, immunological, and overall health. There are many good reasons for including naturally fermented foods in your daily diet:
- The regular consumption of fermented foods helps to restore the proper balance of beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract. Many common health issues (including irritable bowel syndrome, yeast infections, allergies, asthma, and eczema) appear to be rooted in a lack of healthful intestinal flora.
- A healthy population of beneficial bacteria forms a living barrier that prevents harmful microbes from entering the blood and lymph through the intestinal walls. Although we may not think of our digestive tract as having much to do with immune function, almost 80 percent of our immune system is located in the intestinal tract, providing first-line defense against ingested toxins and pathogenic bacteria.
- Fermentation improves the digestibility of foods. For example, many people who are lactose-intolerant and can’t drink milk can eat yogurt, sour cream, kefir, or other fermented dairy products. This is because beneficial bacteria digest lactose during the fermentation process.
- The probiotics contained in fermented foods assist the body in its natural detoxification processes, including helping to extract and neutralize heavy metals and environmental toxins.
- Fermented foods help us to better absorb the nutrients that we consume. By improving digestion, you improve absorption.
- Eating fermented foods regularly is associated with a significant reduction in cancer. Miso, in particular, offers profound protection from radiation toxicity.
In recent history, fermented foods have all but disappeared from the modern American diet, much to the detriment of our digestive health and overall wellbeing. Many foods that were formerly excellent sources of probiotics (such as sauerkraut, pickles, olives, yogurt, sour cream, and cheese) are now subjected to pasteurization, which eradicates beneficial bacteria.
One of my favorite fermented foods is miso. It’s versatile and tasty and can be added to soups, stews, salad dressings, sauces, or made into a spread. We always have at least a couple of different varieties of miso—both dark and light—in the refrigerator.
Dark (red) miso is saltier and considered more suitable for winter. A bowl of red miso soup garnished with scallions is the perfect remedy for helping to ward off fall and winter colds. Light (white) miso is sweeter and less salty, which makes it more appropriate for spring and summer.
Try these simple recipes that we enjoy at home:
Miso-Carrot-Ginger Salad Dressing
- 2 tablespoons sesame seed oil (untoasted)
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
- 2 oz. rice vinegar
- 3 tablespoons white miso
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into small pieces
- 1-inch gingerroot, peeled and cut into small pieces, or 1-2 tsp. ginger juice
- 1 clove garlic
- 1-2 teaspoons raw honey
- 1 tsp. tamari
- ¼ tsp. turmeric powder
- salt and pepper (white or black), to taste
- Put all ingredients except salt and pepper into a blender or food processor; pulse briefly several times to begin combining ingredients.
- Let machine run for a minute or so until mixture is chunky-smooth.
- Add salt and pepper to taste and drizzle over mixed greens.
This simple and tasty spread goes well on bread or toast, rice cakes, crackers or chapatis. Makes 1/2 cup.
- 4 tablespoons tahini
- 4 tablespoons water
- 1 level tablespoon brown rice or barley miso
- 1 rounded tablespoon minced onion, scallion, or chives
- 1/4 teaspoon dried basil or 1 teaspoon fresh chopped basil (optional)
- Mix all ingredients thoroughly in a small saucepan or skillet and bring slowly to a simmer over medium-low heat, stirring constantly.
- Gently simmer for 1 to 2 minutes while stirring constantly, remove from heat. If too thick, stir in more water, one teaspoon at a time.
Gingery Miso Spread
This delicious spread is quick and very easy to make. For a mild flavor, use mellow white, yellow, or chickpea miso. For a bolder, saltier flavor, use red miso.
- 2 Tbsp miso paste
- 3 Tbsp toasted sesame tahini
- 1 Tbsp water
- Fresh lemon juice, to taste
- 1/2 tsp fresh grated ginger root, plus juice
- 1 clove garlic, pressed
- 1 Tbsp slivered scallion greens or chives
- In a small bowl, combine all ingredients, mixing until smooth.
- Spread a thin layer on bread or crackers.
Miso Vegetable Soup
This soup makes a healthful lunch and is especially beneficial when recovering from a cold or flu. I also recommend miso soup for weight loss; enjoy a cup before 1-2 meals a day. Feel free to substitute whatever seasonal vegetables you have on hand. You can use tempeh instead of tofu, which is another naturally fermented food. This recipe serves 4.
- 1 onion, thinly sliced
- 3 carrots, sliced into matchsticks
- 2 stalks celery, chopped
- 1/3 pound tofu, cubed
- 3 tablespoons sesame oil
- 4 cups vegetable stock
- 1 strip kombu or wakame
- Fresh juice from 1 small piece ginger
- Splash of tamari
- 2-3 teaspoons miso
- 1 scallion, sliced thinly
- Sauté onion, carrots, celery, and tofu in sesame oil.
- Add stock, kombu, ginger, and tamari. Simmer for 30 minutes or until vegetables are tender.
- Dilute miso with a small amount of hot broth, add to soup, and stir well.
- Garnish with scallions and serve.