It's a living thing: Chef Jonathan Chovancek on fermented foods

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Photo courtesy EAT! Vancouver

Fermented foods are a rising food trend in Vancouver and in other major cities around the globe. Suddenly everyone isn’t just pickling things, they’re talking about the health benefits of eating and drinking things full of bacteria.

When it comes to fermentation and food, we’re talking some serious science, with delicious and healthy results. There are a number of restaurants in Vancouver that have embraced fermented foods like kombucha and kimchi on their menus, but many of us have been consuming fermented foods all our lives; things like yogurt, bread, soy sauce, and sauerkraut are all fermented.

Courtesy EAT! Vancouver 2015

SEE ALSO: EAT! Vancouver at BC Place 2015: New and returning features

One local chef who is enjoying experimenting with fermentation is Jonathan Chovancek of Café Medina, who is including some fermented items on the restaurant menu. Chovancek is also teaching a sold-out hands-on workshop on fermentation as part of the EAT! Vancouver Food + Cooking Festival. He is also talking about fermentation on the Talk & Taste Stage on Friday, May 1 at EAT! Vancouver at BC Place.

Photo by Hamid Attie via @medinacafe/Instagram

Photo by Hamid Attie via @medinacafe/Instagram

I talked to Chovancek about why fermented foods are so great, and what modern home cooks need to know about giving this old world technique a try in their own kitchens.

Vancity Buzz: Can you explain what fermentation is, and what some examples of fermented foods we might encounter day to day?

Jonathan Chovancek: Essentially fermentation is the breaking down of sugars into acid or alcohol by yeasts, good bacteria and other microorganisms which produce a product with a long stable shelf life, incredible flavour and natural health benefits.

Why do you think fermented foods are popular with restaurants, businesses, and home cooks right now?

Flavour. You get levels of umami, sourness and floral notes which were previously not present before the foods were fermented. Ultimately it is a higher level of deliciousness. This is not something new however as some of the oldest fermented products we consume are beer, yogurt, bread, soy sauce, tea and miso.

Kimchi/Shutterstock

Kimchi/Shutterstock

What are the health benefits to including fermented foods in our diets?

A properly cultured ferment will have hunderds of thousands of happy, healthy bacteria present which, when consumed, contribute to a healthy stomach and digestive system. Our bodies react very well to eating food which itself is a living thing.

How hard is it to learn fermentation and do it at home? What are some basic tools someone might need?

Safety is the number one concern as products can go sideways from healthy to deadly very quickly. Understanding the science and chemistry as well as HACCP safety protocols is essential for DIY home fermenting. So, the most important tools are our brains and books.

What are some of the ways you’re using fermented foods in your cooking at Café Medina or at home?

At the restaurant we make seasonal vinegars and pickles as well as our signature coca sourdough flat bread. This is a 36-hour fermented dough with an incredible fava flour-red fife wheat starter which gives the dough incredible flavour. On the bar we have a selection of great beer wine and spirits, all of which are fermented products. In the spring we will be bringing back an amazing Kombucha from Pedro at 05Tea.

Learn more about fermentation from Chovancek during the EAT! Vancouver festival and try some of the fermented foods he’s making and cooking with at Café Medina.

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Lindsay William-Ross Lindsay is a Senior Editor at Vancity Buzz, and currently runs the site's Food section. A fourth generation Vancouverite, she spent the last two decades in Los Angeles, where she was EIC of the city's top blog, earned her MA, attended culinary school, and was an English professor (among other things). Lindsay's first published piece was December 1980 in The Province; it was her letter to Santa. E-mail: lindsay@vancitybuzz.com
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