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Jan 11, 2023

HOW TOA Funky, Sometimes Sour History of Japanese Fermented Foods

Fermentation has been used in Japan for centuries to preserve food and impart ingredients with a distinct flavor that permeates almost every aspect of Japanese cuisine.

Jan 11, 2023

The early days of fermentation in Japan

Fermented foods play an integral part in Japanese food culture. The first fermentation techniques were developed as far back as 14,000 BCE in the Jomon era, although historians can’t give an exact timeframe for this. What is known is that deliberate fermentation has been going on in Japan for thousands of years, with early pioneers using salt in seaweed to preserve meat and vegetables.

By the 13th century, the discovery of tane koji, the starter used to develop koji mold, meant that fermentation could be undertaken on an industrial scale. This discovery led to the creation of Japanese staples like soy sauce, miso and sake. All of these ingredients, and more, are important parts of Japan’s culinary map today.

What are the practical benefits of fermentation?

First and foremost, fermentation is an incredibly effective way of preserving food. In simple terms, the fermentation process produces various compounds such as lactic acid, alcohol and carbon dioxide that prevent microorganisms from forming and rotting the produce.

In the early days of fermentation, and still, in areas where it’s difficult to access fresh food, fermentation enables people to enjoy the benefits of vegetables year-round. Beyond preservation, fermentation is used in the creation of alcoholic drinks, like beer and sake. And of course there is the unique tangy flavor that fermentation imparts to different foods.

Fermented products as longevity-enhancing superfoods

While delicious, fermented foods are incredibly good for your health too. As well as being easier to digest, fermented foods are thought to reduce the risk of some diseases by supporting gut health, lowering blood pressure and flooding the body with antioxidants.

In Japan, one of the most common fermented superfoods is tsukemono, or Japanese pickles. To prepare tsukemono, you simply need to select the various fruits and vegetables you want to ferment, cut them up and cover them in a brine. This can consist of plain vinegar, rice bran, miso or salt. As well as providing all the probiotic benefits of fermentation, tsukemono are rich in vitamins and fiber too.

More than miso and soy: Fermentation’s impact on gastronomy

While miso and soy sauce are two of the most famous Japanese fermented foods, they are far from the only ones. There are countless ingredients in Japanese cuisine that use fermentation to enhance flavor and shelf life, drawing on the same centuries-old traditions that kickstarted the fermentation boom in the country.

For example, kombu-jime (kombu-cured) fish dishes are made by marinating fish between sheets of kombu seaweed. While shio koji seasoning on everything from fresh salads to cuts of meat can be enjoyed in some of the best restaurants in Japan and beyond. Even NOMA in Copenhagen, for a long time considered the best restaurant in the world, based its entire ethos on ancient fermentation techniques, many of which originated in Japan.