As my readers may remember, making kombucha and tempeh were among my 2018 resolutions. In 2009, I delved briefly into the live-foods lifestyle and came to understand the importance of probiotics. Fermented foods (like yoghurt, cheese, kimchi, etc.) are easier to digest because they have been pre-digested by other organisms, who then populate our gut flora and help to facilitate our digestive processes and to keep a balance of good bacteria versus bad bacteria in the stomach. I used to brew beer with a Mr. Beer kit, and still love both the science and the art of making fermented foods at home. Making your own foods is also a way to practice autarchy, and of avoiding the insane amount of salt and refined sugars and other additives found in commercially available foods.
Kombucha is a fizzy drink from a brewing tradition that appears to have originated in Russia, where black tea is fermented using a scoby (acronym for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). Some people call the scoby a mushroom, although that’s not accurate. It looks more like a pancake sitting on top of the drink. The bacteria and yeast consume the sugar added to the concoction and make it fizzy. So it’s like brewing a healthy homemade soda … except that it’s made by tiny living organisms.
I used to have a scoby back in 2009 and years after that, and brewed kombucha weekly for a few years until some bad bacteria got into it and turned it green. I knew from the look and smell of the scoby that it was ‘sick’, and threw it away. Some people pay lots of money for a starter scoby from a others (who separate the layers of scoby to create new generations of them). However, one can simply birth a new scoby from a bottle of kombucha one has enjoyed (this is sold at Whole Foods and other health food stores). Last week, I reserved a few ounces of a kombucha drink, and placed it in a jar that had been thoroughly rinsed with anti-bacterial soap and coated with vinegar. After five days, a thin layer of scoby had formed, and was ready to feed on sugar! So I simply brewed some tea (I used yerba mate this time instead of black tea) and added brown sugar. Within a week, the kombucha was ready to bottle, refrigerate, and enjoy.
Some things to know about scobies: they are living organisms, and like any other organism they need a certain temperature to thrive. If refrigerated, the scoby will go dormant. They also need to be in a container that is covered at all times to avoid infection by bad bacteria, yet they need to breathe (permeable handy wipes, or paper towels held together by rubbers are enough). AND they thrive in hygiene and high acidity, so I would strongly advice thorough cleaning of the container where kombucha is being brewed with anti-bacterial soap, rinsing, adding a few tablespoons of vinegar, and then coating the entire inner wall of the container in vinegar prior to brewing kombucha. This kills any microorganisms that would impede a healthy kombucha culture.
Here is my first successful batch of homemade tempeh!
Tempeh is a product made by fermenting soybeans (or other legumes) which makes more of the nutritional value of the beans available to us, since the mycelia (plant-like fibers) of the fungus have pre-digested the meal. By the way, fungus is the plastic of the future: a certain fungal species is fed wood chips from a certain tree, placed inside a mold, and within a couple of days the fungus has taken over and one has a new object in the shape of the mold: 3-D technology using nature’s own processes. Unlike plastic, this type of landfill helps to recycle waste. I think of it as an ingenious application of the Epicurean adage “one must not force nature, but gently persuade her“.
The tempeh tradition originates in Indonesia. My first batch was a failure for two reasons: I didn’t hull the beans, and didn’t give them the right temperature. One tempeh recipe I found advised that hulling them didn’t make a difference, and that an easier and faster way of making tempeh was by ignoring that step. That may have worked for the maker of the recipe, but it didn’t work for me. Also, tempeh starter cultures thrive in temperatures between 80-90 degrees F. With the recent cold temperatures, it has been very cold inside my apartment, and I imagine the temperature on the counter of my kitchen probably stayed in the 60s last week. This time, I completely covered the two ziploc bags with punched holes with a thick blanket, and placed the cutting board under it as an added layer between the tempeh and the counter to make sure that it would stay warm. The result was a perfect batch of tempeh within 48 hours, as predicted by all the recipes I’ve found online.
Soy beans are a complete protein apt for vegetarians. Liquid smoke (which captures the essence of hickory, a wood frequently used in bbq) is a great way to season tempeh and create a meat-like flavor, together with soy sauce and maple syrup. People use tempeh as they would use any meat.