Wild Culture: The Wonderful World of Spicy Fermented Food

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Koreans make kimchi to donate to the poor in preparation for winter (Getty/Chung Sung-Jun).

Spicy food, much like fermentation, has a long history. There are mentions of spices in classical texts that go back thousands of years. The word “cumin” can be traced back to Sumerian. In the tropics, archeological records show that chili peppers have been cultivated and consumed for upwards of 5,000 years. In a cave in Israel, researchers found coriander seeds that were dated to 23,000 years old. In ancient medicine, ginger has played an essential role for thousands of years.

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While it has been difficult for researchers to deem whether some of the older discoveries of spices are proof of actual spicy cooking, clay pots found in Germany and Denmark carried traces of ground garlic mustard, found right next to traces of fish and deer. Dating back 6,000 years, the discovery is a prime example of prehistoric spicy condiments.

As humans, our quest for flavor and spice spans millennia. Spice helped to grow trading routes, connecting cultures around the world. Spices have been used as remedies, and aphrodisiacs. It has even been said to be linked to political movements. “The food of the true revolutionary is the red pepper,” once declared Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China.

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Today when we think of spicy food, we often think of sauces. But those spicy flavors came far before the grocery store shelves. Around the world, there is a history of spicy fermented foods, from dried pickled vegetables in the Himalayas to gochujang, a spicy red pepper paste in Korea, to mustard in Europe. While we still enjoy spicy foods today, they’re a bit different than those of our ancestors. That’s because we’ve gotten used to industrialization and making things quickly. “Yes, modern hot sauces can stand on grocery-store shelves waiting for you to buy them for a very long time and will remain safe and flavorful, but they are no longer alive,” write Kirsten K. Shockey and Christopher Shockey in their new book Fiery Ferments: 70 Stimulating Recipes for Hot Sauces, Spicy Chutneys, Kimchi with Kick and Other Blazing Fermented Condiments.

Thanks to advocates like the Shockeys, not to mention a rise in the popularity of spicy fermented products like kimchi, the traditional ways of crafting these foods are coming back. “I feel like we are in a renaissance of fermentation where the old is new, but the new is pushing the old beyond what it ever imagined. We aren’t limited by much in the way of what is available to us year round and I personally love the flavors created by playing with a fusion of various regional foodways — for example, fermenting northern temperate cranberries with the tropical chocolate mole,” says Shockey.

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Want to try making your own spicy fermented treats at home? For a small batch of kimchi, try Maangchi’s traditional napa cabbage recipe, and for a large batch of kimjang kimchi, try this Lucky Peach recipe by the mother of our food editor here at Paste. For a spicy sauerkraut, dig into this recipe from Killer Pickles. For a bang-on Sriracha, Serious Eats has got you covered with this recipe with major zing and a similar taste to what Huy Fong bottles for you.

Even if you’re not tempted to make your own spicy fermented concoctions at home, there are more and more brands popping up to feed your craving. I have a serious habit of putting Olykraut’s Spicy Garlic kraut on just about everything I eat, Mother In Law’s kimchi is a favorite of a certain food editor of mine. JoJo’s Sriracha and Kitchen Garden Farm are part of a growing number of independent producers of a lacto-fermented alternative to the popular spicy condiment that goes on everything from eggs to noodles to burritos.

“I suspect many of our condiments stem from ones that were originally fermented and evolved to the vinegar versions we know today,” says Shockey. That’s good news for those of us with a penchant for spice and a love of fermentation; so many of our favorite spicy sauces and condiments can be made at home.

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That’s also good news for our gut. Much like with fermented foods, there’s a draw for people to spices for the health benefits. “Capsaicin, the spicy in the pepper, increases our metabolism when we eat it. This can be good on a number of levels—even weight loss. Capsaicin also is known for being helpful in pain relief especially around arthritic pain. The biggest thing right now is all the research that suggests that capsaicin can be a big player in fighting cancer,” says Shockey. “Two other pungent players are curcumin in turmeric and the piperine in black pepper — when used together, you get wonderful flavor and powerful anti-inflammatory benefits.”

All an excuse to add a little more spicy fermented food onto our plate.

Anna Brones is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, the founder of the print quarterly Comestible and runs Foodie Underground. Wherever she is in the world, she can often be found riding a bicycle in search of excellent coffee.