Q&A: Sandor Katz on the enduring popularity of fermented foods

Fermentation guru Sandor Katz comes to Bookshop Santa Cruz on June 1 to promote his third book, "Fermentation Journeys"
Fermentation guru Sandor Katz comes to Bookshop Santa Cruz on Wednesday to promote his latest book, “Fermentation Journeys.”
(Via Bookshop Santa Cruz)

Fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz discusses the enduring popularity of fermented foods, their ubiquity in cultures around the world and recipes from his new book, “Fermentation Journeys,” ahead of a visit Wednesday to Bookshop Santa Cruz.

If you’ve ever fermented sauerkraut on your kitchen counter or kept a sourdough starter alive, you can probably thank Sandor Katz. When Katz released “Wild Fermentation” in 2003, it instantly became a household bible for homemade fermented foods and inspired a new generation of home cooks. Since then, the knowledge about and desire for fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha, kefir and kosher dill pickles spread, driving new products to grocery store shelves and restaurant menus. Twenty years later, Katz is to fermented foods what Julia Child is to French cuisine, or Roy Choi is to taco trucks.

A Q&A with fermentation evangelist Sandor Katz

Katz returns to Santa Cruz on Wednesday to promote the release of his latest book, “‘Fermentation Journeys”’ at Bookshop Santa Cruz. I can’t wait to hear him speak again.

I saw him speak in 2013, when I was in my early 20s with a fresh interest in local foods. I had only recently become aware of fermented foods and, with the exception of cheese, was a little wary of them. I walked into the lecture hall at UC Santa Cruz hoping he would answer questions like, “Do fermented foods taste weird?” and “Could I get sick if I ate them?” By the end of the night, I walked away so inspired that I bought a head of cabbage the next day, and a few days later was enjoying my first batch of sauerkraut. That experimentation blossomed into a passion, and over the past 10 years I’ve filled ceramic crocks and glass jars with kimchi, pickles, olives, sourdough starter, yogurt, butter, cider, soda and beer.

A New York native, Katz grew up around fermented foods and admits he was a shameless pickle thief as a kid: “If there were a couple of pickles left in the jar, and they disappeared, usually it was me.” He never thought about the fact that they were fermented foods, he just adored the tangy flavor he later grew to recognize as lactic acid, a byproduct of lactobacillus bacteria fermentation.

As an adult, he followed a macrobiotic diet that emphasized the digestive benefits of pickles and other live ferments, and began incorporating miso, sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables into his meals. But his fermentation journey truly began when, while living in rural Tennessee, harvest time came and he realized he had to do something with all his cabbages. Following a recipe he found in “The Joy of Cooking,” Katz made his first batch of sauerkraut, and his interest quickly snowballed into a full-blown obsession.

Since then, Katz became a full-time writer and teacher, and has traveled the world to discover and share knowledge about fermented foods. In his “Fermentation Journeys,” he shares some of those discoveries. I spoke with Katz from his home in Tennessee to discuss how people’s awareness around fermentation has changed in the past 20 years and what role he thinks he played in its expansion.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Lookout: Some people think fermented foods are “weird” and consider fermented foods to be on the fringe of the American diet. What would you say to them?

Sandor Katz: They might have grown up not knowing about fermented foods or thinking about fermented foods, but if they were eating bread or cheese or cured meats, if they were eating the standard American condiments, all those things involve fermentation. Fermentation is part of everybody’s life. It’s just that most people in the 21st century aren’t thinking about it. They’re just eating it.

When I was growing up, nobody was talking about fermentation. I wasn’t thinking about what things like yogurt and pickles and the beer and wine my parents were drinking had in common. Once I got interested in fermentation, I realized that all these different things are fermented — including chocolate.

Most people in the world who enjoy fermented foods don’t know that they’re fermented or aren’t thinking about the fact that they’re fermented. Nonetheless, the products of fermentation have enjoyed enduring popularity everywhere.

Lookout: Since your book “Wild Fermentation” was published in 2003, the popularity of fermented foods in the U.S. has exploded. What role do you think you played in that growth?

Katz: I guess I’ve been a part of that change, but really, until about the beginning of the new millennium, all we were hearing about bacteria was about how dangerous it was. I would really credit the Human Microbiome Project with slowly helping people realize that bacteria in general are not our enemies that need to be destroyed, but rather an essential part of us. In terms of evolutionary biology, all forms of life are descended from bacteria and other prokaryotic organisms. Rather than thinking of bacteria in general as our enemies, people today recognize that our health and well-being, the health of the soil, the health of other creatures and the health of plants are interdependent. Bacteria help sustain us.

Fermented foods have been part of our various culinary traditions for thousands of years. They help to improve biodiversity in the gut, and thereby potentially improve digestion and immune function, even mental health. I would like to think that I’ve had some sort of small role in popularizing fermentation and making people more aware of fermentation. But I think that really the receptiveness to fermentation has everything to do with people’s more nuanced ideas about bacteria and the recognition that bacteria are important to our well-being.

Lookout: What has traveling taught you about fermentation, and how did it influence your latest book, “Fermentation Journeys”?

Katz: I’ve always enjoyed traveling, and thanks to the interest in fermentation and the success of my books I’ve taught in almost 30 countries. When I go somewhere to teach, I’m not only teaching, I’m also meeting people who introduce me to distinctive local foods. My fermentation education has really expanded through this and I’ve gotten to learn about lots of varied fermented foods in different parts of the world. My knowledge is certainly not comprehensive — there are just so many different kinds of fermented foods and beverages that people enjoy around the world. As I was learning about them, experiencing them, documenting them and in certain cases learning how to make them, I’ve taken notes and shared them with people in more informal ways. I always thought that eventually I would write a book like “Fermentation Journeys” to share some of the fermented foods and beverages that I’ve encountered.

Lookout: Can you share a fermented food or beverage from your new book that people might not know about?

Katz: One of the places that I sought out going to where I wasn’t specifically invited to teach was China. A Chinese American student of mine and her mother organized a trip to this small rural village in Guangzhou. There, people are living pretty much subsistence lives and producing virtually all of the food that they’re consuming and they’re doing lots of fermentation.

The thing that made me so interested in going to China is that all of the historical stories about sauerkraut repeat the same general idea that sauerkraut comes from China. The nomadic peoples of Central Asia encountered cabbage, preserved cabbage in China, and then brought the idea westward into Europe. So I was interested in the historical roots of sauerkraut and in China discovered pao-cai. It’s a Chinese style of fermenting vegetables in a beautiful spiced brine. One of the great things about this process is it becomes a perpetual brine, so the first batch of pickles will take maybe two weeks to make, but then once the brine matures, you can put vegetables in for much shorter periods of time and have them acidify quite quickly. So maybe the second batch would take a week and then the next batch might only take three or four days and then you know, once the brine is fully mature, just a day or two is adequate.

I learned so much in China that I’m sharing in this book, including using a paste based on rice with some spices and salt to preserve fish and meat. Chinese rice alcohol is so wonderfully simple to make and I have a recipe for mi jiu, which is a fermented rice alcohol. Those are a few things just from China, but everywhere I’ve gone in every region of the world I’ve learned about interesting and distinctive foods.

Lookout: With fermented foods so widely available these days, why should people try to make them at home?

Katz: Well, I don’t think it’s necessary for everybody to make fermented foods in their own homes. As you say, there’s a lot of great quality products available and you can enjoy really wonderful fermented foods that other people have made. My point is, if you’re interested in making fermented foods, there’s no reason to be intimidated. Many people just assume that because fermentation involves bacteria, you need a degree in microbiology, a microscope and specialized starter cultures. My interest is demystifying fermentation and making it accessible so that anyone who wants to ferment can do it with confidence. There are all kinds of compelling reasons to do it yourself, but I’m not on a mission to convince anybody that they shouldn’t be fermenting. My experience through teaching is that all kinds of people project all of the anxiety they’ve been taught to have about the danger of bacteria onto the idea of fermentation, and I want to dispel that anxiety.

Sandor Katz’s in-store appearance Wednesday at Bookshop Santa Cruz is currently sold out. Additional spots could become available depending on attendance. More information at bookshopsantacruz.com.

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