W e all have moments where we crave certain foods that we ate growing up. As the daughter of a Korean mother and a Polish father, I got to experience elements of these two very different food cultures right inside our home. When my mom cooked for the family, she would make Korean soups, marinated meats, and pickled vegetables that we would eat with rice. When my dad cooked, he would serve kielbasa with sauerkraut and rustic bread. Although at first glance these cuisines seem to have very little in common, there was one unique ingredient that tied them together, and that was fermented cabbage.
What exactly is fermented cabbage? During the process of food fermentation, vegetables are typically soaked in salt water or their own juices, allowing for certain bacteria to grow. These friendly bacteria are known as lactic acid bacteria because they feed on the natural sugars of the vegetables to produce lactic acid. This creates the characteristic tangy flavor that many fermented foods are known for.1
Both Korean and Polish cuisines utilize fermented cabbage in a variety of dishes. The Korean version, kimchi, is typically made from Napa cabbage that has been cut into large chunks and is seasoned with chili pepper, garlic, scallions, and fish sauce. Kimchi is often eaten as a side dish with rice. A common staple in Polish cuisine is sauerkraut, which is made from finely shredded green cabbage soaked in salt brine. Sauerkraut is fermented at a higher temperature than kimchi and has a higher acidity and lower salt content.2 It is commonly eaten with pork or sausage, in stews, or as a filling in traditional Polish dumplings called pierogi’s.
Although it may sound unappetizing to allow bacteria to grow in our foods, fermentation was actually one of the first methods used for safe food preservation centuries ago.3 The lactic acid that is produced during fermentation kills disease-causing bacteria that would normally cause food to spoil over time. The use of salt also acts as preservative and prevents the growth of harmful bacteria during this process.
Further driving our this “fermentation frenzy” in our food culture is that the bacteria found in fermented foods are considered probiotics. These “good” bacteria and are similar to those found naturally in your gut that help with overall health and digestion. You probably have heard of these friendly bugs in cultured dairy products such as yogurt. Probiotics that occur naturally in foods are absorbed by the body much more effectively than probiotics in supplemental form. Another great reason to include fermented vegetables in your diet.4
Although fermented foods are often high in sodium, there are low-sodium versions available that can be enjoyed in moderation. Kimchi is a little harder to find and is typically sold at Asian markets, but can easily be made at home. Check out the following Reduced Sodium Kimchi recipe and serve it with rice or mix it in with a slaw for an added punch of flavor.
1. Battcock M, Azam-Ali S. Fermented Fruits and Vegetables. A Global Perspective. Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; 1998; 5.1-5.7
2. Nudi, E. Difference between: sauerkraut and kimchi. https//www.erinnudi.com/2015/01/28/difference-sauerkraut-kimchi Accessed October 31, 2015.
3. Foroutan, R. The history and health benefits of fermented food. https//www.foodandnutrition.org/Winter-2012/The-History-and-Health-Benefits-of-Fermented-Food Accessed November 1, 2015.
4. Newgent, J. Prebiotics and probiotics: creating a healthier you. https//www.eatright.org/resource/food/vitamins-and-supplements/nutrient-richfoods/prebiotics-and-probiotics-the-dynamic-duo Accessed October 31, 2015. Recipe adapted from: https//www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2014/01/01/health-and-family/foodrecipes/kimchi.html
Amber Rzeznik is from Dallas, Texas. She attended Pepperdine University in Malibu, California and is currently a dietetic intern at Vanderbilt Medical Center. Her career aspirations include working as a clinical dietitian in pediatrics. She was a self-proclaimed picky eater growing up but has transformed her interest in food, cooking, baking and healthy eating into a career path!