Here is a question for you: What is common to cake, bread, cheese and yogurt? Yes, I know and agree that they are all delicious but come on take another guess. Here is a hint to help you — it is a living organism.
Guessed it, have you? A bacteria is the right answer. I know you must be making an ugly face now and most probably wrinkling your nose too but don’t be so quick to pass judgment. We all know that there are bad bacteria and good bacteria. The food items that I listed together all make use of a technique called fermentation, where good bacteria feed on the sugar present in the ingredients and turn them into something else. Fruit juices might turn into wine, dairy products turn into cheese or yogurt and grain into beer. Fermented foods are great for us as they aid digestion, help us absorb nutrients in a better way and support our immune system. And it is not just bacteria that help improve the taste and colour of our food, there are others like some fungi.
Fermentation is an interesting field and has many uses. The science of fermentation is called zymology. French chemist Louise Pasteur is the first known zymologist who discovered the connection between yeast and fermentation. Yeast, as you may know, is a microorganism that is related to fungi. Yeast is greatly helpful to mankind when reared in various forms. It is a rich source of Vitamin B and has been used by genetic engineers to produce certain enzymes and hormones that help the human body to heal better. However, there are some kinds that are not so good for us and may cause diseases such as skin infection.
Fermentation, like soaking grain before consumption, was a much used process in earlier times across societies. There is evidence that this process has been used since 6000 BC. Seven-thousand-year-old jars containing the remains of wine were found in a village in Iran and are on display at the University of Pennsylvania. There is more proof of this process being known to men in various settlements across the planet.
Let us look closer home. I am sure you are familiar with dosas, dosai, idlis, pesaraattu, adais and appams. You relish them every now and then and you must have seen your mother or grandmother leaving the batter overnight to rise. Have you ever wondered what happens when the batter is left out like that? The process of fermentation begins to take place in the rice and urad dal batter. The fenugreek seeds that are often added to the mixture and the urad dal draw the wild yeast from the air. The fungi multiply in the heat often doubling the quantity of the batter. This process also increases the vitamin content in the dish.
Fermentation is a popular way of preserving food articles. When desirable bacteria are introduced in certain food they restrict the growth of the bad bacteria thus safeguarding foods from getting spoilt for longer periods of time. In some cases the process of fermentation also lowers the pH level of the food to a range where the bad bacteria find hard to survive thus helping the food to stay consumable for longer.
Pickles are an important part of the daily diet in our households. Various products are pickled to ensure their availability beyond a season. Pickling uses the fermentation process.
Now we know that these microorganisms are small in size yet they pack a big punch for our health.