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From: Food security – Footsteps 32

The importance of producing, processing, storing and distributing food locally

by Dr Ann Ashworth.

The benefits of fermentation have been recognised from the earliest times. There are records of fermented foods being used by the Sumerians, ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and Assyrians. Chinese descriptions of miso from soy sauce go back to 1000 BC. Other foods that are commonly fermented are milk (to make soured milks and yoghurt), cereals and cassava.

In Africa ogi, uji, ting, koko, kenkey, obusera, and nasha are common fermented porridges. Fermented dough can be made into bread, as in injera and kocho in Ethiopia. In Latin America, maize and cassava are fermented. Examples are pozol, chicha and farinha. In the Indian subcontinent, cereal and pulses are often fermented together to make idli, dosa and dhokla. In south-east and east Asia, most fermented foods are based on pulses and fish. Many of these are used as flavourings, such as miso, natto and fish sauce.

These products may be appreciated far from their country of origin. There are two kinds of fermentation: sour fermentation which produces acid, and alcohol fermentation. In each case, special harmless micro-organisms are introduced into the food and allowed to remain and multiply. The microorganisms bring about beneficial chemical changes in the food.

Benefits of fermentation

Fermentation is a good example of traditional wisdom! Unfortunately its use is in danger of declining in favour of western products. In Kenya the decline in some areas has been attributed to missionaries discouraging the preparation of sour porridges in the mistaken belief that they contain alcohol. Also, health workers tend to stress the need to prepare fresh food and so discourage the use of fermented foods. Encourage people to value their traditional fermented foods.

Dr Ashworth works at the Centre for Human Nutrition, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, 2 Taunton Street, London, WC1H 2BT, UK.

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