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Refreshing relishes, lively condiments

(article, Cynthia Lair)

[%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true] Once (or twice) a year, my friend Holly and I go to a beautiful Korean women’s spa. After soaking, scrubbing, and steaming, we have lunch in the spa's small café. The meals are simple, usually rice with egg, tofu, chicken or beef, and cooked vegetables. But the best part is the half-dozen bowls of condiments that arrive with the meal, called banchan. Each one has raw, pickled, or fermented vegetables and sprouts. These unique flavors make the meal come alive.

Not only do these traditional foods add flavor and zip to grains, beans, meats, and cooked vegetables, they are helpful for the gut. Two major food components that aid digestion are enzymes and probiotics, or friendly bacteria. These are found in foods that are raw, pickled, fermented, or cultured. Most traditional cuisines include these as a traditional part of the meal. Some examples are pickled ginger, miso, aged vinegars, traditionally brewed soy sauces, beer, sour cream, kimchee, slaws, and salsas.

Many believe that some of our common maladies (gas, bloating, food intolerances, skin problems) may stem from poor digestion. When digestion is off, our body is communicating with us. If we pay attention to and address these first symptoms of unease, we may prevent trouble down the road. In the new edition of Feeding the Whole Family, I recommend that we pay more attention to the digestive capability of a meal when designing it. Not only by choosing more fresh, whole, unrefined foods, but by including lively condiments and side dishes each day that boost the digestive fire with enzymes and friendly microorganisms.

h4.Raw, raw, raw

The enzymes from raw or lightly heated foods can stimulate the release of digestive enzymes in the mouth and continue activating digestion in the stomach. Most traditional societies incorporate a serving of raw, enzyme-rich foods into their daily diets. The standard green salad served before or after the meal is a familiar example. Including some amount of raw foods with every meal can be stimulating as well as refreshing. 

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Raw foods also tend to contain more bacteria and microorganisms than cooked food, which may stimulate the immune system and help populate the gut with beneficial flora.

h4.Don’t kill the friendlies

How the immune system forms is affected by gut flora and how the immune system reacts to foods is also influenced by the health of the gut population. It is estimated that more than 400 species of bacteria inhabit our digestive tracts, weighing up to three and a half pounds. It is important to have enough healthy bacteria to maintain optimal health.

Things that destroy the friendly bacteria in our bodies include antibiotics (taken directly or from our food supply), chlorinated water, and stress. In our ultra-clean society, we sometimes don’t ingest enough friendly bacteria. Often we overuse antibiotics, which wipe out both the good and bad bacteria in our systems. Without a sufficient population of friendly microorganisms, we are more vulnerable to illness.

h4.It’s alive!

Wine, olives, sourdough bread, kombucha, kefir, natto, chocolate, vanilla, Tabasco, tamari, crème fraîche, amazake, horseradish, raw apple cider vinegar, chutney, and injera are just a few examples of cultured or fermented foods. When food ferments, the sugars transform into other carbohydrates, alcohols, and organic acids by growing healthy microorganisms. Under favorable fermentation conditions, the food will not grow undesirable microorganisms, thus preserving the food from spoiling. This was a huge help prior to having refrigerators. Culturing and fermenting foods also helps retain and enhance nutrients, plus it adds a zippy flavor and texture to some of our blander staple foods. Bonanza!

These ancient techniques help foods develop enzymes and probiotics. Regularly ingesting friendly bacteria helps the good guys outnumber the bad guys in our guts. Culturing and fermenting also “pre-digest” some of the properties of foods, making them easier for us to digest. A good example is yogurt, where the often-troublesome lactose is transformed into easier-to-digest lactic acid by the cultures added to the milk.

To create a food that contains probiotics, either the bacteria proliferates by allowing the food to age or microorganisms (cultures) are added to the food and more bacteria develops. Sauerkraut is an example of food that has been aged to develop its friendly bacteria. Cabbages, salt, and time are all you need. Tempeh is an example of food that has microorganisms added to it. A culture called rhizopus oligosporus (mold spores) is added to cooked soybeans. The mixture is packed in special bags and incubated on trays at about 86 to 88 degrees for 24 hours. The result is a 3/4-inch thick cake or patty.

Go beyond just slapping some lettuce on your sandwich. Explore some of the condiments that other countries have used as a part of their traditional cuisine for centuries. Find some easy recipes that ring your chimes and plop some on your grains, vegetables, beans, fish, or chicken. Serve these lively foods and excite your friends and families.

p(blue). Editor's note: Cynthia makes red-pepper relish in a Cookus Interruptus video.

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