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Big ferment: This ancient food preparation technique has won over food scientists, too

From the ragi-based ambali to purple-carrot kanji and endhuri pitha, these probiotic-rich foods for winter are excellent for gut health, digestion and immunity. Not to mention delicious too.

November 20, 2021 / 11:03 AM IST
Fermenting changes the taste, aroma, texture and appearance of food.

Fermenting changes the taste, aroma, texture and appearance of food.

From kombucha on tap in bars to sourdough bread in cafés and varieties of yoghurt, sauerkraut and kimchi in our local supermarkets... fermented foods have shed their homely image to inch into the spotlight.

To be sure, fermentation has never gone out of fashion. Many of us grew up eating idlis and drinking kanji. Fermentation was something that happened quietly, patiently, uncelebrated, in a dark and cool corner of the kitchen.

What has changed over the last decade is that the ancient food preparation technique has been catapulted to prominence, thanks to growing research around the health benefits of fermented food (for example, when you make sauerkraut, microbes break down the cellulose in cabbage to make it digestible and the nutrients more bioavailable to humans) and the amazing variety that is now available (conveniently) from artisanal makers, and in stores and restaurants.

Fermenting also gives a salty-savoury flavour to foods that compliments many different dishes. Here's a look at the process and some of the fermented foods that are great for winter time.

How fermentation works


In the book The Art of Fermentation, author Sandor Katz describes fermentation as  ‘the flavourful space between fresh and rotten’! If that doesn’t sound too appetizing, here’s another explanation. The process involves breaking down sugars and converting them into other products such as organic acids, gases, alcohol, etc., with the help of bacteria and yeast.

Fermenting changes the taste, aroma, texture and appearance of food. “Fermented foods improve the gut flora which is made up of 100 trillion microorganisms and possibly influence the way we think and behave. Recent studies suggest that the role of the intestinal microbes may go beyond gut health, and is very important for maintaining good health and reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and inflammation,” says Kiran Dalal, chief dietitian, Fortis Hospital Faridabad.

Some foods like beans, milk and cruciferous vegetables are hard to digest. Fermentation starts the breakdown of the components that make digestion difficult. For instance, someone who has trouble digesting milk may respond well to kefir, a yogurt-like drink, because it's fermented and almost 100 percent lactose-free after the bacteria has metabolized the milk sugar. The same goes for cabbage. Sauerkraut, a finely cut cabbage dish is much easier to digest because the fermentation process breaks down the carbohydrates. 

Studies suggest that probiotics can help treat everything from diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome to more serious conditions such as heart attack and hypertension. Though more research is needed, current evidence still gives good reasons to consider getting a daily dose of probiotics from a fermented food source.

Fermented foods to try this winter

Fermented foods have been a significant part of traditional Indian cuisine, no matter which state you belong to. Yogurt is a flagship fermented food, produced by the bacterial fermentation of milk. Idli, dosa, dhokla and cheeses are among the most sinful and delicious forms of fermented food. But the repertoire of fermented foods goes beyond these, and winter is the best time to indulge in them. 


Kalari, the little-known artisanal cheese of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), is a good place to start the exploration. This traditionally ripened cheese is made from cow’s or goat’s milk and has a mozzarella-like stringy, slightly sour taste.

(Picture courtesy Anubhav Sapra) (Picture courtesy Anubhav Sapra)

In J&K, kalari is typically enjoyed as a street snack, flattened and sautéed in its own fat until it develops a crisp golden layer on the outside while remaining creamy, tender, and gooey on the inside. It is then placed between soft buns with a drizzling of sweet and spicy chutneys. A bite of this and you are guaranteed to forget the calzones of the world! 


Another one of the simplest joys of winter is a glass of earthy kaali gajar ki kanji. The potent concoction is made with antioxidant-rich black carrots, mustard seeds, water and black salt.

The boiled kanji is collected in ceramic jars and left to ferment in the sun for two to three days before being strained and served. It has a pungent, zingy flavour which might take a while to grow on you.

Black carrots for Kanji chandan-chaurasia-XuUFvk1rQeM-unsplash

Black carrots have high concentrations of anthocyanins that boost immunity and fight against cancerous cells. A glass of kanji in the winters is excellent to treat gas bloating, heart burn, nausea, constipation and diarrhoea. It also boosts digestion which tends to become sluggish during winters,” says Dalal.

Bajre ki raab

In Rajasthan, it is bajre ki raab/rabdi, a delicious drink made by fermenting a mixture of buttermilk and bajra (pearl millet) flour. It is relished as a chilled drink during summer to cool the body and as a warm beverage in the winters. 


In the south there is Ambali, a ragi or finger millet-based fermented beverage native to Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Here, powdered ragi is mixed with water and left to ferment for a few hours. The mixture is then added to boiling water and cooked until creamy. Once it cools down completely, some buttermilk is added. Some even add onions, green chilies or some mango pickle for extra funk.

Endhuri Pitha

Endhuri Pitha, a steamed rice cake, is an emotion to many Odias. “A fermented batter of rice and black gram is applied on to a turmeric leaf. The leaf is then folded mid-vein and cooked gently over steam. Not only do the turmeric leaves have beneficial antibiotic properties, but the fermentation enhances the nutritional quality of the pitha which is traditionally eaten with aloo dum or mutton curry,” says Priyanka Pani a public relations consultant who also runs a home kitchen.

(Picture courtesy Priyanka Pani) (Picture courtesy Priyanka Pani)


Akhuni, a fermented soybean paste, is one of Nagaland’s most-savoured fermented foods. It is mainly used along with vegetables to make a stew and at times cooked with smoked pork, dried river fish and dried beef. The slightly bitter, smoked flavour is an acquired taste.


If you travel to Darjeeling and Kalimpong gundruk is a must-try. This popular food item is made from fermenting leafy green vegetables. Gundruk forms a valuable source of nutrition whenever fresh vegetables are hard to come by. But gundruk is more than just a nutrition supplement. In the sunless days of continuous rain and fog when appetite dies and digestion and mood are sluggish, a bowl of hot gundruk jhol can lift your mood.
Nivedita Jayaram Pawar is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist, who writes on food, art, design, travel and lifestyle.
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