One trend, three trailblazers

Three ways with: fermented vegetables

A trio of chefs explain how they use the flavours created by fermentation to enhance a dish.

15 November 2018
chefsfermentedgut healthhealthingredientsrestaurantsvegetables
Presa and salted carrots at Gazelle
image credit: Gary J. Berry

The trend 

  • Fermented foods are said to promote healthy bacteria in the gut, which can improve digestion. During the process of fermentation, bacteria converts organic compounds – such as sugars and starch – into alcohol or acids and enhances the natural, beneficial bacteria in food.
  • Supermarket cabbage sales rose sharply in 2017, with growing interest in fermented cabbage dishes such as sauerkraut and kimchi thought to be behind the rise. Sales at Sainsbury's, for example, grew 39% between December 2016 and March 2017.
  • Waste-conscious chefs have taken to fermenting vegetable leaves, stalks or other parts of the plant that might otherwise be thrown away during preparation. Chantelle Nicholson at Tredwells restaurant in London makes kimchi from cauliflower leaves.

Fermented foods are nothing new. In fact, as London-based restaurateur Linda Lee points out, Koreans have been eating them in the form of kimchi for over 2,000 years – as have plenty of other cultures that have preserved fruit and vegetables for centuries using fermentation.

It might not be a new technique, but 2018 has arguably been the year when fermented food, with its gut-health-promoting properties, has come into its own, with chefs around the country experimenting with a whole field full of veggies.

Lacto-fermentation, which occurs when salted vegetables are sealed and left for several days, creates a complexity of flavour and a slight sourness that can offset richer ingredients or enhance other flavours in a range of cuisines and cooking styles.

From fermented cucumber as an accompaniment to a crab dish at The Three Chimneys restaurant on the Isle of Skye and fermented turnip served with lamb at Tommy Banks' York restaurant Roots, to fermented tomatoes accompanying celeriac shawarma at Ottolenghi's Rovi, the trend has caught hold at restaurants of all kinds. 

While the act of fermentation creates interesting flavours and textures, it’s also a smart way to prevent food waste – after all, that’s part of the reason it was invented.

It’s certainly why Sophie Andre, founder of catering company Elysia, employs it as part of her culinary arsenal.  

“Talking about fermentation when serving our canapés is a way to share our interest for sustainability and a simple recipe to keep fruits and vegetables all year long,” she says.


The trailblazers

Linda Lee, the restaurateur behind four Korean restaurants in London – Koba, On The Bab, Mee Market and On The Dak – describes a dish of kimchi fried rice served at Koba: “This is a simple but hearty dish, where kimchi is used as an ingredient rather than as an accompaniment. We make the kimchi by lacto-fermenting vegetables – usually Chinese leaf (baechu kimchi) or cabbage – and seasoning them with chilli, but there are hundreds, even thousands of varieties. For this dish, first fry diced pork in oil, then add chopped kimchi and cooked rice, mixing together as you cook. Toss in some sesame oil and spring onion, and serve with a fried egg on top. The kimchi adds a depth of flavour and texture that contrasts with, yet complements, the rest of the ingredients. The crunch and spice of kimchi, which comes from the fermentation and seasoning, contrasts with the umami flavour of the pork and the softness of the fried rice. Mixed together with the yolk of the fried egg, the dish becomes a wonderful blend of rich, distinctive flavours and textures – a complexity which belies how incredibly simple it is to make!”


Rob Roy Cameron, head chef at Gazelle in London, describes his dish of Presa, Salted Carrots: “Iberico pork from Maldonado Farm is smoked over pine needles and served with French Sandy carrot, a sweet variety of the root vegetable. To make the sauce, we juice the carrots and salt the juice. We then ferment the carrots in the salted carrot juice. Once the carrots have fermented, which is usually five to seven days, we take the carrots out, juice them and blend the salted carrot with the fermented carrot. We then thicken it with kuzu, a Japanese thickening agent. Fermenting makes the flavour more complex and longer lasting. It's a familiar flavour, but not the same sweet carrot people are used to. Fermenting also helps to keep the bright, vibrant orange colour, as it's not cooked. It remains raw until the end of the process, when it's gently heated. The sauce complements the flavour of the pork and enhances the smoky flavour of the meat.”


Scott Smith, head chef of Fhior in Edinburgh, describes a dish of lightly cured and steamed halibut, buttermilk potato mousseline, pepper dulse and fermented fennel: “Fermenting the fennel converts some of its natural sugars into acids, which give it a lovely soft sourness. To make the dish, the fennel is very thinly sliced and mixed with 2% of its weight in salt. This is then vacuum-sealed and left at room temperature for six to 10 days. The fennel is warmed gently and dressed with oil and burnt onion, before being plated with steamed halibut, potato mousseline and pepper dulse. The sourness of the fermented fennel balances the slight saltiness of the cured halibut and the richness of the potato. It brings a lightness and herbaceous notes to the dish and an overall roundness.”

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