Ferment food for the gut

Almost all communities in India have festivals that revolve around stale food high on probiotics

By Sangeeta Khanna
Published: Friday 15 August 2014

Jamun vinegar is a good source of probioticsEver wondered how food was preserved at a time when there were no refrigerators or electricity, only Grandma or Mother Nature to turn to? It was the practice of either fermentation or dehydrating food, that preserved eatables. Common during the Paleolithic age, when food just involved hunting and gathering produce from jungles, fermentation as a process has been practised by all communities and tribes and is making a comeback in modern kitchens in a big way. Actually, dehydrated and fermented food is so common that most of the time we fail to notice it. Fish is dehydrated or fermented and meat is smoked and dehydrated.

Milk is preserved by fermentation, which is how so many cheeses evolved all over the world. Fresh vegetables are dehydrated or pickled to last the harsh winters or desert summers in many places across the globe. Grains are fermented in many ways to make a meal that aids sleep or digestion. Grains are also used to produce alcoholic drinks for regular consumption.

Many tribes make fermented beverages in their own way using different grains or fruits or starchy tubers, whatever grows in abundance locally. Fermented fish paste, fermented soyabeans and pantabhat or pakhalabhat are common among Indian regional cuisine as well as the tribal cuisine.

Almost all communities in India have some festival around the spring season that revolves around “stale food”. This overnight stale food is purposely kept at room temperature and often gets sour, but the custom is not to reheat the stale food and eat it for all meals the next day. This has been a great way to introduce the body to the coming season’s probiotic as well as pathogenic microbes through overnight food. The probiotic bacteria help build good immunity, boosting gut flora, and the inoculation with pathogenic bacteria in small numbers prepares the immune system for seasonal illnesses by switching on the Immunoglobulin M protein, a basic antibody, as the first immune response.

Notably, this overnight meal is eaten on a day called Sheetalshashthi by Bengalis and around the same time of the year, by Marathis and Sindhis as well. It is supposed to bring immunity from small pox infections. MaaSheetala is considered the goddess who treats small pox and this ritualistic consumption of fermented food is interesting in this regard.

Sindhis call this festival Satam around the shrawan month and the stale food is called kanbo and includes fried fritters of the sweet and savoury variety. Mithila Brahmins also eat overnight stale daalpoori, kheer, sattu, badiyan (dried lentil cakes) and drink the extract of a herb called chirata, which is an immunity boosting agent. The association of this ritual in different communities with immunity is also notable.

Apart from the ritualistic consumption of probiotic foods, almost all communities in the country have something cooked or prepared regularly that helps build up probiotic flora. These are mostly the foods that are fermented with the expertise handed down through generations, involving recipes that are woven around the availability of some fresh produce, scarcity of some other in a particular geographic location.

Radish pickle can be made at home with mustard

People all over the mountains smoke meats, ferment fish and lentils (including soyabeans) to prolong their shelf life as well as to make them more digestible and nourishing. People in the coastal regions have the tradition of eating fermented rice gruel that keeps the body cool and helps optimise nutrient availability. Kashmiris have a particular liking towards fish with stale rice. People from Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh make kanji vada, a delicacy. Those from the central plains make a type of fermented seasonal pickle that is a great source of probiotics.

The popular breakfast dish of puffed rice (murmura) or poha is good probiotic food too. The rice products are made after parboiling paddy and sun drying it for a few hours before either beating it flat to make poha or roasting it in sand to get puffed rice. The rice ferments partially after parboiling and retains the microbial flora, getting superior food value as well as partially digested proteins and carbohydrates.

Vinegars are made using juices of sugarcane, fruits like jamun, grapes, apples and even coconut water. Kachampuli, a naturally fermented vinegar of garciniajuice, is popular in Coorg, coconut vinegar in Kerala and sugar cane vinegar is popular all over the country. Jamun vinegar is seen as a medicinal supplement for diabetics although its sugar regulating properties are debatable. But all naturally fermented vinegars have great probiotic supplements.

Yogurt has been the simplest way to ferment milk and make it more nourishing. Yogurt is used in many ways in all cuisines of India. A popular drink calledjaukighaat from Rajasthan is prepared by cooking barley flour with yogurt to make a thin slurry and then resting it overnight for a mild fermentation. The drink is refreshing and nourishing with a good dose of probiotic flora.

Rice, barley and some other grains are used to make liquors of different types, be it chhang from Leh or other country liquors that are fermented in every tribal home around Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Toddy is a popular drink in coastal areas and wherever toddy palms grow. Toddy yeast is even used to ferment some food items in many communities.

One can ferment foods even in modern kitchens. Sauerkraut, radish or seasonal vegetable pickles can be made with mustard powder; kanji can be made using carrots or beetroot at home easily. Even fruit juices can be used to make vinegars at home.

The author is a food and nutrition consultant

Jamun vinegar


1 litre of jamun juice
A sterilised glass jar or ceramic or a new earthen pot


Pour the jamun juice in the pot. Tie the mouth of the jar with a clean muslin and then cover, allowing the passage of air. Keep the jar on a sunny window for about three months.

You can open the jar and smell the vinegar forming in between, the aroma of the vinegar will be the best indicator of ready vinegar but the best visual sign is when the layer of the microbes on the surface makes a stable disc that does not break when you lightly stir the liquid inside.

Strain the vinegar after three months in a sterilised bottle. Store in a cool dark place and use it for making vinegar onions or for salad dressing or just have it in a small shot glass every day for probiotic supplementation.



500 gm of whole wheat flour (atta)
700 ml of buttermilk
300 gm of jaggery (powdered) or raw sugar
Ghee for deep frying


Mix the atta and the buttermilk to make a thick batter and let it rest through the day or till the batter starts frothing. Mix jaggery or raw sugar to the batter and mix well. Add fennel seeds to this batter and mix. Heat ghee and drop spoonfuls of the batter into it. Let three-four small gulgulas fry in the hot ghee at a time. Turn the gulgula over once it browns on one side and let it cook properly on the other side too. These look like crisp brown sweet fritters and taste really good fresh or a day old. The gulgulas are made around evening, are offered to God and then kept overnight before they are had as prasad the next day. A very distinct sweet and sour taste is characteristic of gulgulas.

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