Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Returning to the Old (Arab) Ways: Why I Ferment Food

I have been asked many questions recently about traditional foods, and particularly why I chose to follow so closely to the traditional food methods of preparations.  So, this is the first in a series of posts in which I will attempt to talk about a few topics related to traditional foods and health. 
 * * *
I grew up in a pretty dirty part of the world.  We lived in Cairo when I was in elementary school and as much as I loved it (and I was pretty passionate about defending its beauty), I have to say that it was dirty.
Did I say dirty?  I meant filthy. 
The air pollution was so bad that when my father had a physical exam after he returned to the States, the doctor said that his health was fine, but that he really needed to lay off of the cigarettes.  That's right.  My father isn't a smoker. 
It wasn't just that the air was dirty.  We had to be very careful about drinking water and food.  We had to worry about hepatitis, parasites, amoebic dysentery.  My mother was extremely diligent and went to great lengths to keep our water and food safe, and all without the help of little bottles of antibacterial soap or wipes.  Yet, we all stayed healthy (although others who traveled with us were not as fortunate), and when we moved away, we left in good health. 
Now, I wonder:  did my time in Egypt actually improve my health?  After all, when I travel abroad now, even though others are often stricken with various, ahem, gastro-intestinal issues from the food or the water, I am fine.  This makes me wonder what those years in Egypt did for me. 

"All disease begins in the gut" - Hippocrates

When I first started looking into a traditional food diet, I quickly learned that the gut - our digestive system - is really at the root of our health.  If what we put into our mouth either fuels and increases our health or diminishes it, it stands to reason that the mechanism by which our food is converted into fuel is extremely important.  If our digestion is well, and if we are eating good foods, then we are well on the road to vigorous health. 
Digestion, I think, is the new frontier of medicine.  We have managed to map the human genome, but what about the human gut?   Do we really know what is in there, why it is there, and what happens when we wipe out the slate clean with antibiotics?

Here is a fascinating recent article from the New York Times Magazine that outlines the newest research on the topic: Some of My Best Friends are Germs, by Michael Pollen.  This article outlines in great detail some of the latest finds on gut health and makes a few tentative suggestions.

Since this is a long article, here is a brief summery of some of his findings:

1.  Our digestion and our immune system are inextricably linked. In fact, they are really one integrated system.  Our immune system's job is to constantly encounter bacteria and determine whether they are "self" or "other" and then attack the other. Pollen posits that the lack of "constructive engagement" with microbes, particularly during critical periods of development, may be the underlying cause for many auto-immune diseases.  So, what feeds gut health, feeds our overall health, and vise-versa.  The more diverse, the more plentiful the microbes in our gut, the better our overall health. 

2.  The average American "gut ecosystem" is not what it used to be.  The American Gut Project is underway, attempting to map out the American gut flora and learn exactly what is there, and what is missing.  But even preliminary findings show that our gut flora are sadly lacking.  If you want to participate in the study, go to American Gut Project

3.  The causes of our current "wilderness" are many:
  • c-sections - which fail to allow a newborn's sterile gut to acquire her mother's gut flora
  • antibiotics  - which wipe out gut flora
  • antimicrobials - which not only prevent a diverse gut ecosystem, but are also accidentally ingested
  • hyperhygienic and mass-produced foods - which prevent exposure to microbiota
  • food additives -  many have been shown to damage the lining of the gut

4. Improper eating may lead to inflammation in the gut, so that the lining our digestion tack becomes inflamed and then permeable (a.k.a. Leaky Gut Syndrome), which in turn allows toxins to leak into our body, triggering an immuno-response and disease. 

Take Care of Your Gut (And It Will Take Care Of You)

1.  Avoid antibiotics unless absolutely necessary.  Before filling that prescription, ask your doctor if you can treat the problem in some other way, or what the risks are to waiting a few days to see if they are really necessary.  While there is no question that antibiotics are a life-saving necessity, try to use them as a last resort.  Consider using herbal remedies first.  For example, my son has managed to avoid several rounds of antibiotics since I found that warm garlic and tea tree oils in his ear resolves his ear infections. 

2.  Don't be afraid to get (or let your kids get) dirty.  Skip the gloves when gardening (if using quality soil).  Let a dog lick your hand.  Let the kids splash merrily in the mud, poke worms, make "mud soup."  I mean, if they're like my kids, they are going to do it anyway.  Now you just have one more reason to smile and ignore your horrified neighbors. 

3.  Include plenty of living, fermented or cultured foods in your diet, which are rich in a wide variety of healthy microbes.

Traditional Foods for a Traditional Gut

This last one is where traditional foods come in.  What are these living, fermented foods?  How do you make them?  The most well-known food in the West is probably yogurt - which is really nothing more that cultured milk.  But there are so very many other ways to ferment or cultured foods - and traditional societies were very skilled at this because fermenting foods was the only way to preserve them in the days before refrigeration.  The world of cultured foods is wide and deep.  All of the best foods are really cultured foods:  wine, beer, cheese, chocolate, pickles, yogurt, sauerkraut, olives, bread, vinegar . . . and every traditional culture has its own favorite cultured foods - from kimchi to sauerkraut, and milk kefir to kombucha. 

Palestinians are no strangers to cultured foods.  Yogurt, labani, olives, white farmer's cheese, kefir, jameed (the dehydrated fermented yogurt that is the base for mansaf) - all of these foods can be found at our tables.  When I showed my mother how I was making milk kefir, she said, We used to make that, too, when I was growing up.  And we also just used water to make kefir, and that was my favorite.  Water kefir!  My mother grew up drinking water kefir!

Learning how to make many different types of fermented foods takes time, but learning how to make two or three simple ones and eating them regularly will certainly help improve your digestive health.  And once you learn the basics of lacto-fermenting, you will find that it really is easy and that you can ferment almost anything!  I will be posting some recipes that are near and dear to me, but this blog - Gnowfglins - has a wealth of information on fermenting, culturing dairy, and sourdough, with many e-books and posts on the topic. 

Related posts:

How to Make Yogurt
Labani, or Yogurt Cheese
Cultured Cream

Shared at Real Food Wednesday, Party Wave Wednesday Simple Lives Thursday, Thank Your Body Thursday, Tasty Traditions, Fight Back Friday, Fat Tuesday, Traditional Tuesday


  1. Yum! I'm getting ready to make a batch of pink sauerkraut (a mix of purple and green cabbage), even though it's not really sauerkraut season anymore. I'm a big believer in happy microbes! I enjoyed your post. :)

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