This is an article highlighting the fermented foods and beverages of Indian cuisine; manifesting its beneficial significance, its desirable organoleptic properties and along with contemplating its preservative quality.
Yogesh Singh, Senior Faculty (Culinary Arts) at Institute of Hotel Management, Kurukshetra. Winner of GOURMAND world cookbook awards 2015.
India, a subcontinent of Asia, has widened its periphery all across globe on the platform of world gastronomy with its profound diversity and versatility of its exemplary cuisine. The culinary excellence of Indian food has reached solstice and it is recognized and accredited by every renowned organizations working in this stream. In India, one notion says that “Chaar kos par paani badle, chaar kos par baani” translating to fact that at every four miles dialect changes and also the taste changes as well. It can be better understood promulgating that the taste and flavour changes every four miles in India and thus it encompasses tremendous diversity. The traditional values of food, the culinary exploration and gift of ethnic foods have been bequeathed with miscellanea and it actually is a boon to connoisseurs from all across the world. One facet which is unexplored and unfathomed in culinary world is undeniably; the fermented cuisine of India and hence it needs to be explored and researched.
Fermentation can be defined as any process in which the mass culture of micro-organism, yeast, moulds and bacteria feed on sugar and starch present in food; leading to significant modification of that food. This in turn releases Lactic Acid Bacteria which executes pivotal role in this entire process. With the passage of time, process got refined with certain benefits imparting food with character like enhanced flavor, increased digestibility and intensifying the nutritional worth of the food in terms of b-vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, etc. The process of fermentation is distinguished for its immense benefits been delivered to humanity by preventing diseases like diabetes, constipation, gastro-intestinal disorder (as it increases the amount of bacteria in gut), obesity and even cancer. Its benefits are innumerable and are appreciated in the world of gastronomy from last few years. It is a process which imparts tanginess and pungency; and heightens the aromatic character. Indian gastronomy has offered numerous fermented delicacies and beverages, par excellence in nature, to the platter of culinary arts and has even glorified the attributes of fermented food in real essence.
Onset of fermented food
Soma juice (Somras) is the first undisputed documented fermented product in India which is obtained from the leafless vines and other indigenous grapevines juices and then these juices are fermented to yield Soma juice. It has its existence from the period of ancient Vedic Era and apart from been graced with peculiar medicinal attributes; it has been revered and worshipped as well.
Curd: A versatile fermenting agent
Characterized with dominant incorporation of spices, Indian gastronomy uses curd as one ingredient to counterfeit the spiciness of great number of dishes of Indian Cuisine. It is either incorporated as chief ingredient or is consumed as side dish or in the form of even desserts. Curd mitigates the spiciness of many dishes and acts as core ingredient in preparing lassi, raita, buttermilk (chaas), etc. It has marked its presence in ample delicacies extending from north to south and east to west. Dahi bada, kadhi, rabadi, aviyal, misti doi, shrikhand are few such illustrations of huge repute and fame. The role of curd in all such dishes is despite the fact that it is used as a starter to ferment many delicacies.
Cereals and Pulses in fermented food
Dhokla, idli, dosa, uttappam, kallappam, khamam, naan, kulcha, bhatura, koozhu, wada, pazhaiya soru are handful preparation which are cherished, relished and consumed all across the country and has cereals or pulses as the fundamental ingredients. Dhokla and idli resemble cake-style preparation whereas dosa, uttappam, kallappam denotes pancake-style preparations. Cereals used in it are rice, wheat, barley and pulses include black gram (urad dal), red gram (arhar dal), and green gram (moong dal) in it. The batter required for all such preparation are allowed to ferment overnight at normal room temperature (around 26oC in Indian context), in order to permit growth of most desired yeast and bacteria in it. Dhokla is surely the most acclaimed dish of state Gujarat and has attained utmost regards in the family of Indian snacks. Idli and dosa hardly needs any introduction and is appreciated by all as South Indian delicacies whereas naan, bhatura and kulcha are breads baked or roasted in mud-clay oven widely known as tandoor and these breads have become an integral part of Punjabi cuisine. Koozhu, a porridge-fermented product made with broken rice hails from state Tamil Nadu and is eaten with great gusto. This porridge preparation is blessed with tendency to provide cooling effect to the body and hence it is generally consumed during summer. Pazhiya soru is another rice fermented product; here rice is fermented by incorporation of buttermilk.
Indian cuisine is enriched with fermented desserts like Jalebi, gulgule and selroti (bringing Nepali influence in Indian cuisine) which are scrumptious desserts made from fermented batter. Jalebi and gulgule are wheat-based whereas selroti is one rice-based spongy and ring-shaped dessert in which banana, honey and ghee are also used in it.
Sikkim: State implementing fermentation at its best
Sikkim, an eastern state has transcended in the process of fermentation especially when it comes to milk-based products. It has a huge assortment of fermented products like chhu (cheese-like product), philu or philuk (cream-like product consumed as paste), shyow (curd-like gel product), mohi (kind of buttermilk consumed as refreshing beverage), somar (soft-bitter paste consumed as soup). All mentioned products, besides their gastronomic values, needs an introduction and space in Indian cuisine, as they are still eclipsed with state of seclusion. The state Arunachal Pradesh has given a cheese-based product chhurpi, which is primarily made from yak-milk. The process of making chhurpi is still unexplored in neighbouring states of it.
Fermentation in non-vegetarian food
When it comes to Indian fermentation food, fish has achieved distinguished status and has gifted some remarkable lovely delicacies to the team of gourmet. A ball shaped dish, Hentak from state Manipur, is a famed dish with sun-dried fish powder incorporated in it. It is either eaten as curry or as condiment with rice. Tungtap is another dish from state Meghalaya with fermented fish paste. Lona ilish and ngari is also fish fermented product from eastern states. The fish products like sidra, sukuti, gnuchi, bordia, lashim etc. are cherished for being dried or smoked. The meat products like beef, mutton, lamb are rarely fermented as they are susceptible to microbial deterioration. Despite this condition, dishes like chartayshya, satchu, geema, arjia are in tradition and in existing trend hailing from the region of Himalayan belts.
Vegetable and unripe fruits based fermented food
The process of fermentation can’t be overlooked and ignored with vegetables and unripe fruits as the core ingredients to prepare outstanding delicacies with high gastronomic values. Here the medley list gets vivid with preparation like gundruk, a leafy vegetable preparation from state Arunachal Pradesh comprising of mustard leaves, cauliflower leaves, radish leaves and other available leaves; anishi made with yam from state Nagaland; khalpi made with cucumber as core ingredient from state Sikkim are such few delicacies with distinguished gastronomic values. Sinki, comes from state Sikkim, is an altogether distinct dish prepared from the radish tap root fermented in about 1m deep pit plastered with mud and heated by burning.
It would lead to unwarranted act and injustice, if beverages don’t mark their presence in this culinary article, as there are endless numbers of fermented indigenous beverages almost across all states of India. Considered and recognized as one of the costliest indigenous fermented drinks, Kesar Kasturi from state comprises of saffron and many commonly used other spices. A potent brew, which depicts ultimate royalty in every sip; Kesar Kasturi was consumed in all royal states family and nowadays it has become accessible to common man too. From state Nagaland, comes the frothy fermented rice-based beer, Zutho characterized with sour taste and fruity aroma. Chuwarak, from state Tripura; is a sort of whisky drink obtained by fermenting pineapple, jackfruit, rice and certain other local ingredients. It is very popular in eastern states of India. Next in the list is Kanji from state Haryana, which is the most colourful fermented drink prepared from carrots, beetroot, and rice (optional). This red-purple drink is prepared during the onset of summer. It is also known for its high pungent taste value. Chuak from state Tripura is fermented rice beer and is relished by all. The list is never-ending with drinks like zawlaidi (state Mizoram), kiat (state Meghalaya), sunda kanji (state Tamil Nadu), judima (state Assam) and list goes on and on.
Each fermented beverages and drinks have a distinct story to dictate. A serious endeavour needs to be welcomed to make such product popular and common; in condition where few are already well-known and few needs to be recognized. The benefits and merits of fermented food are no longer in a state of surreptitious and it been a boon to mankind, they need to be accepted and absorbed with open hearts.
The significance of fermented culinary values of Indian gastronomy can’t be and shouldn’t be overlooked. It is overloaded with immense beneficial properties to mankind. It is strongly recommended to incorporate as much of fermented dishes as possible in meal to achieve this goal. This article portrays diverse dimensions of fermented food which nevertheless a preservation technique brings utmost palatability, enhanced flavour, and increased digestibility, heightens immunity, adds nutritional value by increasing nutrients like proteins, vitamins, essential amino acids and fatty acids and lastly medicinal values as well.